Pressure builds for French pilots' release

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Diplomatic Editor

France suspended its threatened but unspecified reprisals against the Bosnian Serbs yesterday as intensive talks took place to achieve the release of two French pilots shot down over Bosnia in August.

"Intensive contacts are under way on the one hand with our allies, on the other hand with Belgrade," an aide to President Jacques Chirac said. "Under these conditions, the decisions taken by France will not be announced today."

The official spoke after President Chirac held his second meeting of the day with his defence and foreign ministers on the fate of Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet, whose Mirage 2000 was shot down during Nato air raids over the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale on 30 August.

France had brought enormous international pressure to bear on behalf of the two men. Nato had also launched at least three covert military missions to try to snatch the men back.

The French government set a deadline of Sunday for the two to be returned, or for precise information to be delivered about their fate. When that passed, the United States and other Western allies renewed their representations in Belgrade, fearing that public outrage in France could delay the signing of the Bosnia peace agreement in Paris on Thursday.

Yesterday afternoon the Yugoslav Defence Minister, Pavle Bulatovic, told a visiting Nato delegation he expected a "positive statement" on the pilots. Later, the White House spokesman in Washington said the US was "very hopeful" that the men would soon be set free.

On 5 September President Chirac said he held the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, responsible for the pilots. Three covert helicopter rescue missions were launched by Nato on 6, 7 and 8 September to try to get them out. All three failed.

The Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, then met his Serbian counterpart, Milan Milutinovic, in Belgrade and demanded information about the men. The Serbian minister said he knew nothing. When the two met again at the UN in New York, Mr de Charette was given the same brush-off.

But on 28 September Paris Match magazine published photographs proving the two men had been captured alive by the Bosnian Serbs. Mr de Charette went back to Belgrade and took up the case with Mr Milosevic.

The French were further enraged by the lies and evasions of the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic. "He said first he didn't know anything," said a senior French official. "Then he said he knew who held them but he had no leverage. Then he claimed that Muslim bandits had kidnapped them. Finally he said they were in the hands of freelance Serbs."

The French grimly linked every stage of their participation in the Bosnia peace process to the men's fate. "The French delegate at the Dayton, Ohio, talks raised the matter every day with each of the parties," a French official said. "Later on we obtained commitments from all sides to do all they could. These were not honoured."

Last Wednesday President Chirac telephoned Mr Milosevic and warned him of "multiple consequences" if the men were not released. The French delivered a letter in the same terms. One day later the French Foreign Ministry spokesman was authorised to threaten "consequences that would hit those holding the men and those who had failed to honour their engagements".

On Friday Mr de Charette played his ace card, telling the 52 countries and organisations at the London Conference that the situation was "intolerable" and that France would reserve its freedom of action unless the men were freed by Sunday night.

So strong was the French statement that the US and its allies went into overdrive to manifest "solidarity" with the French. In Belgrade, the US special envoy and the British charge d'affaires added their voices to those urging Mr Milosevic to use his muscle with the Bosnian Serbs.