Paris takes belligerent line on its lost airmen

Bosnia settlement: French President warns Milosevic of unspecified action over missing pilots if he fails to produce pilots shot down in August

The French President, Jacques Chirac, yesterday warned his Serbian counterpart to produce two French pilots shot down over Serb-held Bosnia three months ago or face unspecified consequences.

Mr Chirac, who has recently demanded greater safety guarantees for Serbs who are to come under government rule next month, raised the issue in a telephone call to Belgrade yesterday, his spokeswoman said, though she gave no details of the conversation.

"The President had a new telephone call with President [Slobodan] Milosevic on Wednesday morning and told him that if the two French pilots were not released in the coming days, France would be forced to draw all the appropriate conclusions," Catherine Colonna said. But she said there was no question of postponing the Paris peace conference, scheduled for 14 December, until the pilots' release, as demanded by their wives.

Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet disappeared on 30 August after ejecting from their Mirage 2000 as it plunged towards a hill near the rebel Serb headquarters at Pale, east of Sarajevo. Many UN and Nato officials believe the men are dead, because Radovan Karadzic recently claimed they had been kidnapped by unknown forces, and because they were not used as a bargaining chip by the Serbs at last month's peace talks in Dayton, Ohio.

"The most commonly held view here is that if they existed and were alive, they would have been cashed in at Dayton," one official said. "For example: OK, if we get Grbavica [a Serb suburb of the capital due to revert to government control] you get the pilots."

Last week Mr Chirac wrote to the US President, Bill Clinton, urging the international community to strengthen safeguards for Serbs living in Grbavica and four other suburbs ceded to the government at Dayton. "That was definitely linked to the French pilots - that was the right noise the Serbs would want to hear," the official said, "in that Chirac was saying to the Serbs: 'I will raise with Clinton what I know are your concerns over Grbavica etc'."

France will be the third-largest troop contributor to the Nato peace Implementation Force (I-For), which has the difficult task of reuniting Sarajevo within 90 days of the transfer of authority in Bosnia from the UN to Nato. That is expected on 18 December.

Preparations for I-For's arrival are under way in Bosnia, with most attention focused on the new boys: the 20,000 US troops who are to deploy around the northern town of Tuzla. Yesterday a US Air Force cargo plane became the first fixed-wing aircraft to land at the UN air base in Tuzla for more than a year - the runways were closed for most of the war by Serb shelling.

Colonel Neal Patton of the US Air Force and Lt-Col Sid Kooyman, an army liaison officer, flew into Tuzla yesterday to inspect the air base and begin setting up for the arrival, after Paris, of their soldiers. Although the Americans have dispatched several reconnaissance teams to the area, Col Kooyman and his comrades represent the first wave of Dayton peace- keepers to reach the industrial city.

Col Patton told reporters he was "absolutely" satisfied with security at the air base. But he was unable to give details about the alleged impending arrival of US troops.

n Bonn (AP) - Parliament made history yesterday by ordering the deployment of 4,000 German soldiers to support Nato peace enforcers in Bosnia, the largest German military mission abroad since the Second World War. It is the first time since the Nazis'occupation of Yugoslavia that German troops are being dispatched in large numbers to the region.

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