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Serbian Officials Indicate French Pilots Still Alive

By Dean E. Murphy
Los Angeles Times

A potentially explosive obstacle to the upcoming Bosnia peace-signing ceremony in Paris appeared closer to resolution Monday as officials here indicated that good news is imminent about two missing French fighter pilots.

The first word of the airmen since they were shot down over Bosnia-Herzegovina in August came from the head of a visiting NATO delegation after a meeting with Yugoslav officials.

Karsten Voigt, president of the North Atlantic Assembly, told reporters that Yugoslav Defense Minister Pavle Bulatovic told him that a statement would be forthcoming from the pilots' Bosnian Serb captors that Bulatovic expected "would satisfy the families of the pilots."

Voigt did not elaborate, but independent Belgrade radio B-92 reported that a French aircraft was standing by at Belgrade's airport, and state-run Serbian television broadcast upbeat comments by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

"We are doing our best to help clarification of that, and I hope successfully," Milosevic said when asked about the plight of the pilots.

The developments raised hopes that the airmen, Capt. Frederic Chiffot and Lt. Jose Souvignet, are alive and that heightened tensions over their capture will not sour the Thursday signing of last month's Dayton, Ohio, peace agreement. A recent confidential U.N. memo suggested that the two men were dead, and radio B-92 reported last week that they had been executed shortly after their capture.

In Washington, Clinton administration officials said they are hopeful that a breakthrough in the crisis is near. President Clinton said the French expect the ceremonial signing to go ahead as scheduled.

"We are in very close touch with the French," Clinton said. "They are working very hard on this."

Also Monday, Clinton formally asked Congress for an "expression of support for U.S. implementation in a NATO-led Implementation Force in Bosnia," the 60,000-strong international peacekeeping force that will include 20,000 Americans.

The request came in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D. The Senate is expected to vote on a resolution of support Wednesday that has been drafted by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., after consultation with senators from both parties.

"I believe congressional support for U.S. participation is immensely important to the unity of our purpose and the morale of our troops," Clinton wrote.

"America has a responsibility to help to turn this moment of hope into an enduring reality. As the leader of NATO - the only institution capable of implementing this peace agreement - the United States has a profound interest in participating in this mission, which will give the people of Bosnia the confidence and support they need to preserve the peace and prevent this dangerous war in the heart of Europe from resuming and spreading."

Despite the favorable signs about the French pilots Monday, there was no confirmation from the Bosnian Serbs, who captured the airmen alive after their Mirage warplane was downed over Bosnian Serb territory Aug. 30 during heavy North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing raids. Their whereabouts have been a mystery since then, with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic saying they were abducted from a Bosnian Serb hospital by unknown assailants.

Voigt, whose assembly is NATO's parliamentary organization, said a Bosnian Serb statement was expected Monday. But officials in Pale, the Bosnian Serb headquarters near the capital, Sarajevo, indicated that nothing was in the works.

A government official in France, which had threatened unspecified retaliation against the pilots' captors, said "intense contacts" were continuing with Belgrade.

The Bosnian Serbs are believed to be hanging on to the Frenchmen as collateral, perhaps to get more lenient treatment for Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military leader Gen. Ratko Mladic, both of whom have been charged with war crimes. There was speculation Monday in Belgrade that the delay in obtaining the expected statement from Pale was because of intense last-minute jockeying among the Bosnian Serbs.

"He thinks this was a matter of tactics, that some people there tried to get a higher price for certain conditions of the peace process," Voigt said of his meeting with the Yugoslav defense minister.