Chirac 'spook' was key to release of pilots

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The Independent Online
A former French intelligence agent, acting as the personal envoy of President Jacques Chirac, played a key part in securing the release of two French airmen from Bosnian Serb captivity, Western officials said yesterday.

Jean-Charles Marchiani, a Corsican who now holds the senior government job of prefect in the Vars department of southern France, secretly visited Belgrade at the end of last week. His mission became public knowledge when he returned with the captives on Tuesday to the military airport at Villacoublay, west of Paris. Mr Chirac, who was at the airport, made a point of calling out to Mr Marchiani: "Bravo, bravo."

The President evidently selected Mr Marchiani for the mission because of the former agent's experience in handling hostage crises. An intimate associate of Charles Pasqua, a fellow Corsican and former interior minister, Mr Marchiani was involved in efforts to free French hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s.

Liberation speculated that Mr Chirac's decision to use Mr Marchiani had angered the government, especially the foreign and defence ministries, which might have viewed the mission to Belgrade as an unacceptable form of "parallel diplomacy". Mr Pasqua, when in government, and Mr Marchiani were once criticised for taking foreign policy initiatives, particularly in relation to Islamic countries, that went beyond their official responsibilities.

However, if the government was surprised by Mr Chirac's activation of Mr Marchiani as an alternative diplomatic channel to the Serbian leadership, it was giving nothing away yesterday. The Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, said: "The plan was to have as many contacts as possible and Mr Marchiani was part of that effort."

The airmen, Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet, were shot down near the Bosnian Serb headquarters of Pale on 30 August as they took part in Nato air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets. The Defence Minister, Charles Millon, said yesterday that France would have refused to sign the Dayton peace treaty if they had not been freed in time for today's signing ceremony in Paris.

He also said France would have insisted that United Nations sanctions on Serbia, imposed because of Belgrade's role in instigating the wars in former Yugoslavia, should not be lifted in their entirety. As events turned out, the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, once again demonstrated his ability to bring the Bosnian Serbs into line by helping France's efforts to free the airmen.

French officials suggested that the successful outcome owed most to the work of three presidents - Mr Chirac, Mr Milosevic of Serbia and Boris Yeltsin of Russia. Although Mr Yeltsin is still in a sanatorium outside Moscow recovering from a heart attack, Mr Chirac said the pilots would not have been released without his assistance.

The French praise for Mr Yeltsin contrasted with the lukewarm view taken of US efforts in the crisis. Playing down the role of President Bill Clinton and his special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, French officials said the US had not been primarily responsible for securing the pilots' freedom.