Shot-down French pilots `held captive'

ALISTAIR DOYLE

Reuter

Paris - French officials yesterday said there was a strong possibility that two airmen shot down by Bosnian Serbs during Nato air strikes on 30 August were captured by the forces that brought down their Mirage aircraft.

"There is a strong possibility that the pilots are in the hands of the Bosnian Serbs," a senior Defence Ministry official said after France asked the Red Cross for help in finding them. But the official admitted France "lacked sufficient explicit direct information" about the fate of the two men.

Military sources meanwhile disclosed that the emergency beacon carried in the airmen's survival kit had given off signals from the ground after they ejected from their stricken craft. But no voice contact was established through the specialised telephone-like equipment they carried.

The sources said Paris remained extremely cautious in the absence of "100-per-cent verifiable information".

The Defence Minister, Charles Millon, has said several times since the downing that the airmen were alive and that they might be at large in the Bosnian countryside, despite Bosnian Serb reports that they had been caught.

In Geneva, Pierre Gauthier, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, confirmed the French appeal and said the ICRC had already been active in the case. "We will intensify our efforts."

The airmen have not been seen in public or on television since they ejected as their plane plunged to earth. Unconfirmed reports from Pale, the Bosnian Serb "capital", which suggested they were captured, added that one had a broken leg.

A French spokesman said on 1 September that the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, had told President Jacques Chirac that he considered himself personally responsible for their safety.

Nato military sources say the alliance had little evidence for either French or Bosnian Serb versions and added that Paris had not shared intelligence about the pilot and navigator since their Mirage 2000 was shot down.

One version circulating in Pale on Monday was that the men had been transferred to Belgrade.

A Nato spokesman in Naples said: "We have absolutely nothing. The search continues unabated." He said that Nato pilots flying dozens of search missions over the area had not picked up any authenticated signals from the emergency beacons carried by the men.

The downed US pilot Scott O'Grady, who survived for six days in June before being rescued by helicopter at night by American marines, had signalled his position to search aircraft. He survived on rainwater, ants and grass.

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