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Tudjman reins in attack

Balkan turmoil: Croats pledge not to launch assault on East Slavonia after US warning 8 New hope for besieged Muslim town

Defence Correspondent

Croatia will not attack Eastern Slavonia, the last Serb-held area of the country, while peace talks are in progress, President Franjo Tudjman assured the US peace envoy Richard Holbrooke yesterday.

President Tudjman's assurance followed warnings from President Bill Clinton that any action by Zagreb to recapture Eastern Slavonia could derail US-brokered peace talks on Bosnia, due to take place at Wright-Patterson air base, Ohio, at the end of the month.

Recently, Mr Tudjman has made statements similar to those he made before the capture of Krajina, and there have been suggestions Croatia may try to retake the area before the UN mandate in Croatia expires on 30 November.

But Mr Holbrooke said he had seen no evidence Croatia was planning to attack Eastern Slavonia, following its victories in Krajina in August. "I am assured 90,000 Croatian troops have been demobilised and there's been some shifting around of units," he said. "I do not view that as military activity directed at Eastern Slavonia."

Meanwhile, the mystery of the two French airmen shot down over Bosnian Serb territory on 30 August during Nato air strikes deepened after the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said they had been abducted from hospital by "persons unknown", an allegation dismissed as "grotesque" by the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette.

Photographs of the two airmen, who bailed out when their fighter-bomber was shot down near the Bosnia Serb headquarters, Pale, later appeared in Paris-Match. The French authorities said they were very worried about the fate of the airmen and the prognosis was "not looking good".

Assuming Captain Frederic Chiffot and Lieutenant Jose Souvignet survived their capture - and the photographic evidence suggests they did - the Bosnian Serbs would have little to gain by killing them.

French sources fear they could be pawns in a power game between Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, and Mr Karadzic, who claimed the pilots might have been kidnapped by a rebel Serb group or by Muslims. "The longer time goes by the more worrying this affair becomes," a French official said yesterday. "They could be dead and Karadzic could be belatedly trying to cover it up."

In Sarajevo it was confirmed that two Bosnian Serb journalists detained by government forces last month are dead. The Bosnian Serb news agency reported on Wednesday that the two Serb journalists had been killed in prison.

n Washington - President Clinton said that he was confident Congress would ultimately back his plan to send up to 20,000 US troops to help implement a peace agreement in Bosnia, Reuter reports.