The bizarre "kidnapping" story told by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, to explain the disappearance of two French pilots shot down over Bosnia at the end of August and captured by rebel Serbs, is almost certainly a sign that the two men are dead, according to Nato sources.
Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet were last seen ejecting from their Mirage 2000 on 30 August as it plunged flaming to the ground close to Mr Karadzic's headquarters at Pale, during Nato air strikes against the Serbs.
Photographs of the two, apparently with leg wounds but alive and in captivity, appeared recently in the magazine Paris Match; but President Slobodan Milosevic, the ultimate Serb leader, told the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, this week that he had no news of the pilots.
As the two met in Belgrade, Mr Karadzic said in Banja Luka that the pilots had been seized from hospital by an unknown group. "What we know so far is that they have been kidnapped by somebody, and I have given the strongest order for an investigation into what happened," Mr Karadzic said.
The prime suspect for the kind of blackmail opportunity offered by the capture of two Nato airmen - ''help us politically or we will kill your pilots'' - is Mr Karadzic. French officials have remained extremely tight- lipped about the affair.
"Most people I think, including a lot of the senior French people, actually believe they are dead," one Nato source said. "They believe they were killed by the Serbs, whether deliberately or in an unplanned way. The belief is that they died fairly early on."