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Paris backs off Bosnia pull-out

Sarajevo - France backed off yesterday from threats to withdraw peace- keeping troops from Bosnia, made after two French soldiers were killed by snipers in the Bosnian capital.

As fighting continued across the republic, and diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful settlement appeared to be at a standstill, French officials said that their main concern was to extend the battered four-month ceasefire that runs out at the end of this month.

One Foreign Ministry official said: "All the solutions we are proposing to our partners are aimed at avoiding a withdrawal, which in our eyes would be a solution of despair."

But the killings sparked sharp debate among the presidential candidates. Prime Minister Edouard Balladur said in a radio interview: "We have warned that we could not stay there indefinitely if the conditions for peace did not exist."

The conservative front-runner Jacques Chirac said in a television interview that the peacekeepers should have the right to return fire if attacked. "NATO and the United Nations must imperatively give UNPROFOR the means to resist and counter-attack when it is attacked."

Mr Chirac said NATO should also consider air strikes. "Wemust put very strong pressure on the belligerents to extend and respect a ceasefire, perhaps using the kind of ultimatum which was successful for Sarajevo."

Chirac said he opposed pulling out French troops unless it was impossible to ensure their security. However, two far-right candidates, Jean-Marie Le Pen and Philippe de Villiers, yesterday called for France to bring its troops home.

Thirty-two French peacekeepers have died in ex-Yugoslavia, most of them in Bosnia.

United Nations officials said UN service flights into Sarajevo had resumed but complained the Bosnian Serbs were trying to dictate who it could carry.