France sets deadline for pilots' return

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

France last night issued an ultimatum demanding the return by tomorrow of two pilots shot down by the Bosnian Serbs and said the entire Yugoslav peace process was in danger.

The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, told the Peace Implementation Conference in London that France considered "intolerable" the continued uncertainty over the fate of the two airmen shot down over Bosnian Serb territory on 30 August.

France has set a deadline of tomorrow for the pilots to be handed over, he said. "No country around this table would accept [this situation]. These are French soldiers: France cannot accept this without reacting."

Mr de Charette said France reserved the right to act as it saw fit if the demand was not met by the Serbs, raising the prospect of a French military response. The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, expressed "solidarity" with France on the issue. But British officials played down the possibility that France could delay the peace signing ceremony and thus the deployment of Nato troops. It is not known whether the pilots are alive.

The London conference is intended to put into practice the peace accord reached in Dayton, Ohio, last month under which Serbs, Muslims and Croats agreed to end the war in Bosnia. The accord is due to be formalised at a signing ceremony in Paris on 14 December.

Earlier, John Major called on the international community to take the tough decisions needed to make it "unthinkable" for anyone to drag Bosnia back into the abyss of war.

Opening the two-day conference attended by more than 50 countries and organisations, the Prime Minister said the eyes of people all over Europe were upon them. He told the warring parties, whose foreign ministers were present, that a 60,000-strong Nato force and a huge international aid effort stood ready to help them entrench the peace settlement.

"Many of the faces I see around this table I saw around this table five months ago," Mr Major said. "We met then against a sombre and menacing background. A great deal has changed for the better in those five months." Mr Major was referring to the last London Conference in July, which marked the turning point in Western resolve to use air power against the Bosnian Serbs.

Mr Major said this weekend's conference had to take the key decision that the "very hard won" and "fragile" peace in Bosnia must not fail.

"We cannot allow the nightmare of the last three years to return," Mr Major said. "We must make it literally unthinkable for anyone to drag Bosnia back to the abyss." Ministers named the former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, as High Representative to oversee the political and civilian effort.

Behind the scenes, however, a squabble was in progress over the allocation of high-profile jobs and political authority in the year ahead.

France and the United States, already on poor terms over the handling of the Dayton negotiations, are in dispute about the choice of the head of the mission to supervise elections in Bosnia. The French and other EU members are unhappy about the choice of an American diplomat, Robert Frowick, demanding that a European should get the post.

There is also a disagreement between Paris and the US over the safeguards available to the Serbs in the suburbs of Sarajevo which are due to pass into the hands of the Muslim-led government, a question linked to the fate of the two pilots.

The British attitude is that the most urgent necessity is to organise the deployment and command of the 20,000 American troops who will join British and French units to form the backbone of the Implementation Force (I-For).

Yesterday also saw the effective burial of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, which operated from the UN headquarters in Geneva.

The UN's role in Bosnia will now be confined to humanitarian and human rights work carried out by the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other agencies.