Mystery over 'secret French air raid' on Pale

There was speculation in Paris yesterday that a series of unexplained explosions in the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale, yesterday and on Sunday, was the result of unilateral air action by France, following the killing of two French soldiers in Sarajevo at the weekend. Although this was denied by the Elysee, denials from the Defence Minister, Charles Millon, were less categorical.

The claim appeared in newspaper Liberation, in a small article headed "Did a Mirage drop a bomb on Pale?". The reporter, Jean Guisnel, said the newspaper had received information that an unidentified aircraft overflying Pale on Sunday was a French Mirage and that it had been responsible for one or two explosions in the centre of the town at 1300 hours that day. He said the paper had been unable to confirm the report, but that the detail suggested it had some foundation.

According to Liberation, the Mirage flew from French air force headquarters at Mont-de-Marsan under the radar cover of another Mirage which was making an authorised reconnaissance flight. The plane in question was a Mirage 2000-D belonging and it carried a laser-guided bomb primed with one ton of explosive.

The paper said that "Operation Rakam-1" had been ordered personally by President Jacques Chirac from Dakar, the Senagalese capital, where he was ending his five-day tour of Africa, was masterminded by military intelligence, and carried out by four senior air force officers.

On arriving over Sarajevo, the two planes separated. One made the agreed reconnaissance flight, taking photographs of damage inflicted by the reprisal attacks on Bosnian Serb positions. The other diverted to Pale and dropped its bomb - "targeted on a residence belonging to a close associate of Radovan Karadzic" - from a height of 10,000ft. Nato in Naples denied it had any planes in the area at the time. By late yesterday, Nato was still investigating the mystery raid.

The response to the Liberation article was immediate. Mr Chirac's spokesman, Catherine Colonna, was authorised to give a radio interview from the President's plane, mid-way between Dakar and Paris, denying the story. "It's untrue," she said. "The only military instruction the President has given is that Unprofor should be reinforced, nothing else."

But Mr Millon said carefully that although he did not know where Liberation had got its information from, "if it were true, it could be seen as an appropriate response to the logic of war chosen by the Serbs".

Mr Chirac has not concealed his frustration with what he sees as the compromising stance adopted by the West in Bosnia. It was his response to the fall of the Srebrenica "safe area" that led to this weekend's ultimatum to the Serbs and the decision to deploy extra British and French troops around Sarajevo.