Pilot tells of 'brutal treatment' by Serbs

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One of two French airmen shot down on a Nato bombing mission over Bosnia in August and freed this week was quoted yesterday as saying they had been treated brutally at first after ejecting from their plane.

Lieutenant Jose Souvignet said he and Captain Frederic Chiffot had each broken a leg on landing in mountains near the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale. Unable to move, they had waited with their hands on their heads until a farmer with a hunting gun captured them.

"Very soon, armed men in uniform arrived to take us away. We were first taken to a building when people telephoned to get orders," Lt Souvignet told the daily Est Republicain.

Asked whether they had been beaten before being taken to a dispensary in Pale, he said: "We can't talk about it too much but you can say ... that the welcome was brutal."

They received rudimentary treatment before being questioned by the Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic. "The seriousness of our injuries made it necessary to transfer us to a more appropriate hospital where we had to undergo surgery," Lt Souvignet said. "That is where we saw General Mladic again. He was present during our operations, both mine and Captain Chiffot's." They were transferred to another hospital the following night, taken a day later to a prison, and then to another place where they were treated by doctors who changed the dressing on their wounds. They were later separated, which was the most difficult period psychologically, he said.

General Mladic personally released the airmen on Wednesday, 104 days after they were captured, handing them over to the French armed forces chief of staff on the eve of the signing of the Bosnian peace treaty in Paris.

Meanwhile the US military, due to have deployed at least a small force of soldiers by Tuesday, is losing its first battle in Bosnia - against the weather. For the third day running, the raw and snowy winter, which yesterday lay a blanket of freezing fog over Tuzla air base, has prevented the arrival not only of aircraft and the troops they are carrying, but even of a US media star dispatched to cover the story from the cockpit.

Sergeant Terry Pennington and his air traffic control team have installed a radar and navigation equipment on the runway (formerly home to thousands of Muslim refugees from Srebrenica). But the C-130 sent to check the instruments used for landings in bad weather has been unable to land because of the bad conditions. "It's been three days now," the sergeant said. "All of the pilots still have their safety rules ... we can't see the end of the runway."

US Air Force officials say the weather will not hamper operations. But Sgt Pennington said: "There's no guarantee that the pilots could make this approach with this kind of weather." An Air Force spokesman, Colonel Michael Perini, insisted that the delay was inconsequential: "We will meet the objective at this air base in a safe manner." Nor would there would be a Somalia-style invasion. Troops "will walk off the aircraft at a deliberate pace".

The Army plans to send soldiers with tanks across the Sava river border with Croatia. But with meteorologists forecasting more of the same, the question remains whether the US Army will have enough soldiers in place when the Nato peace mission begins officially next week to offer more than a token presence.