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French airmen held by Serbs

Paris -Two French airmen shot down over Bosnia during Nato air strikes last month are alive and being held by Bosnian Serbs, the Defence Minister, Charles Millon, said yesterday.

He said Paris was doing everything possible to get the pilot and navigator released and sent home. Their Mirage 2000 fighter-bomber was shot down by a missile near the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale on 30 August.

"We have proof that our pilots were picked up by Serb forces, alive," Mr Millon told reporters after talks in Paris withMichael Portillo, his British counterpart.

A ministry statement named them as Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet, both of the Nancy-Ochey air base in north-eastern France. The names of the two, long suspected to have been caught, had previously been withheld.

Three secret helicopter rescue attempts from a US aircraft carrier in the Adriatic and from a base in Brindisi, south-east Italy, earlier this month failed. Two Americans suffered slight shrapnel wounds from hostile fire during the abortive missions.

Mr Millon did not say how France had got proof that the airmen were being held. They have not been seen in public since they were filmed by Bosnian Serb television parachuting from their stricken jet.

Mr Millon said that "all procedures have been set in motion so that the Serbian authorities ... firstly, assure their protection and then [we will] see how they can be brought back to France".

He noted that President Jacques Chirac had spoken several times by telephone with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who had pledged to guarantee their safety. France has also asked the International Red Cross to help.

Unofficial Bosnian Serb reports said one of the two suffered a broken leg in ejecting from the plane and that they were briefly held at gunpoint by a farmer before soldiers arrived. They were also said to have been taken to hospital and questioned by the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic.