The United States’ top envoy to Bosnia appealed to the Serbian president Saturday to use his clout to win the speedy release of two French pilots shot down by Bosnian Serbs in August.
“We attach the highest importance to this issue,” Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke said after meeting with President Slobodan Milosevic, who has helped win freedom for captives held by Bosnian Serbs in the past.
The issue had threatened to undermine the signing of the Bosnian peace accord, reached last month in Dayton, Ohio, and set to be formally ratified in Paris on Thursday. French government spokesman Alain Lamassoure said Saturday, though, that the ceremony will go ahead despite the dispute.
At a 40-nation conference on Bosnia held in London, participants moved quickly Saturday to put the peace accord into practice. They agreed to set up a U.N. police force and endorse a swift dispatch of election monitors.
NATO is waiting for the accord to be signed before sending the bulk of the 60,000 troops promised to enforce the peace among Bosnia’s Muslims, Croats and Serbs.
So far, 350 soldiers have arrived in Bosnia, and up to 2,600 are expected by the end of the week, said British Maj. Simon Haselock, a spokesman for the vanguard of peace enforcers.
Milosevic did not comment after meeting with Holbrooke about the French pilots. The American diplomat appeared to be responding to an increasingly aggressive campaign by the French to win the release of the pilots, shot down Aug. 30.
France threatened Saturday to “hit” the Bosnian Serbs unless it gets information about them.
“These are our boys, on a NATO mission, and NATO is sending in more troops,” said Jacques Rummelhardt, spokesman for the French delegation to the conference. “We have said we would hit those who have these pilots.”
Holbrooke’s plea to Milosevic came amid increasing French desperation to have the pilots released.
“I hope that the Serb leaders will have the wisdom to honor commitments to us,” Lamassoure said. “France expects a liberation of the pilots by Sunday night.”
Already this year, Milosevic has successfully negotiated with Bosnian Serb leaders for the release of more than 300 U.N. peacekeepers taken hostage, and of a Christian Science Monitor reporter.
The independent Yugoslav newspaper Nasa Borba, citing unnamed sources, said the pilots were being held by Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic near Pale, the Serb stronghold in the mountains above Sarajevo. Mladic has said he will free the men only if charges against him are dropped by an international war crimes tribunal, the newspaper said.