Nato investigates claim French officer warned Karadzic with phone call

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The Independent Online

An investigation of intelligence reports that a French captain tipped off Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, about Nato peace-keepers closing in on his hideout was promised yesterday by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the Nato secretary general.

British intelligence is said to have intercepted a phone call from the French officer in the Nato force to a senior Bosnian policeman, who warned a Kar-adzic bodyguard. The call could have allowed Mr Karadzic to escape before a massive S-For operation sealed off a compound near the village of Celebici, in the French sector, on Thursday.

If true, the reports will be an acute embarrassment to France. Last year a French officer was jailed for treason after being convicted of passing intelligence secrets to the Serbs during the Kosovo war.

Lord Robertson described the reports as "pure speculation", but a spokeswoman added: "Every time there are allegations we look into them." The French Defence Ministry declined to comment before Nato's investigations are completed, but said Paris would co-operate fully. French foreign ministry officials reiterated their support for moves to arrest those indicted for war crimes, including Mr Karadzic.

The reports, in the Hamburg newspaper, Abendblatt, are also described by S-For in Bosnia as "speculative", but they contained enough detail to sound authoritative. The French captain is said to have called the Bosnian Serb policeman at 6.26am on Thursday and said: "You should pay attention to Foca", the region in which Mr Karadzic was thought to be holed up with his retinue. When asked why, the French captain replied: "You know, Foca is always of interest to us."

The policeman thanked the Frenchman, then phoned the bodyguard, and Mr Karadzic slipped over the border into Montenegro as Nato soldiers swooped on his hide-out.

Within the alliance, opinions were divided. One source said this version "reads like a Tom Clancy novel". Another said the French link made it sound convincing. "If you had claimed it was a Danish tip-off everyone would have laughed," one official said. "But there are grounds to wonder what the French are doing."

Links between the French military and their Serb counterparts date from the First World War. Last December, a French major, Pierre-Henri Bunel, was found guilty of treason for tipping off the Serbs about Nato military plans before the Kosovo conflict. His said he was acting under the orders of French intelligence. In 1998, a French S-For spokesman was removed from his duties after he leaked details of operations to arrest Mr Karadzic. In 1997, a senior war crimes tribunal prosecutor said suspects in the French sector felt they were living "in absolute security".

Mr Karadzic is accused of genocide and other war crimes including responsibility for the massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica.

¿ Prosecutors at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague announced yesterday they would call Lord Ashdown to testify in Slobodan Milosevic's trial, the first Western politician to appear. Lord Ashdown, Britain's envoy to the Balkans in the late Nineties, would give evidence next week, deputy prosecutor Geoffrey Nice said.