Families Push To Free Pilots Held by Serbs

IT'S Day 99 for two missing French pilots in Bosnia, and their families think that's at least 89 days too many.

''The Americans won release of their journalist after only 10 days,'' says Isabelle Souvignet. Her husband, Jose, was shot down over Pale, Bosnia, during a NATO mission on Aug. 30.

Bosnian Serbs freed David Rohde, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, on Nov. 8 after a public campaign by his family, editors, and colleagues - and after US officials made his release a priority at peace talks last month in Dayton, Ohio.

When Mr. Rohde came home and the French pilots did not, their families decided to take a lesson from the American case and go public.

''We were waiting for the peace talks in Dayton because we were sure that [the pilots] would be put in the accord,'' said Mrs. Souvignet in an interview. ''Dayton ended, and still we heard nothing but silence.

''That's when we said, the accord will be signed in Paris [on Dec. 14] and things have got to move now. For us, it's inconceivable that the peace treaty be signed in Paris as long as the pilots are not yet free,'' she adds.

The families of the two pilots have had little contact with the French government since Capt. Frederic Chiffot and navigator Souvignet were shot down in a Mirage 2000 as they attacked a Bosnian Serb munitions factory. Three NATO missions to rescue the pilots on Sept. 5, 6, and 7 failed.

On Oct. 5, their families learned that the pilots were still alive from a photo on the cover of the popular weekly Paris March, purporting to show the Frenchmen in the custody of Bosnian Serb commandos. (French Army spokesmen say they believe the photo to be legitimate.)

''It was tough for the families to see those pictures,'' says Alain Behr, an attorney for the families. ''The [French] government had told them nothing.''

''It's too easy for government officials to rub their hands and say, 'It's not us ... we're not responsible,' '' he added. ''The families were comforted to see that the American journalist was released. After that, we saw that we had to prove our ability to make trouble.''

'Operation Truth'

The editors of the Nancy-based daily L'Est Republicain came to the same conclusion a few weeks earlier. Soon after the publication of the Paris Match photos, they launched a daily ''Operation Truth'' campaign to put the French pilots back in public thought and on the ''must do'' list of French officials.

''The French government wasn't doing very much. That's why we started the campaign,'' says L'Est Republicain managing editor Pierre Taribo. The pilots were stationed at the nearby Nancy-Ochey base.

As of Friday, the campaign has produced 91,982 messages of support for the pilots and their families, many of which were printed in the newspaper. A petition will be delivered to President Jacques Chirac in the next few days, he adds.

''Journalists have the whole weight of their profession behind them,'' says Laid Sammari, an investigative reporter for L'Est Republicain who has closely followed the case.

''When a journalist is captured, you see Day 1, Day 2 ... Day 99 on the television screen every day. In France, there's been nothing. In general, the French press has done little to mobilize public opinion behind the French pilots,'' he said.

Blocked by the courts

Last week, the families instituted an action in French courts in Nancy against those holding the pilots. The timing of this case, on the eve of high-profile signing of the Dayton accords in Paris, was deliberate.

The case would have called into account the ''band of Serbs'' that both French and Bosnian authorities maintain are holding the pilots. French courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed against French citizens abroad.

''The case was designed to put pressure on the French government to make repatriating these two pilots a priority,'' said attorney Behr. ''If the court accepted our theory of the case, we would be able to call French ministers into open court to demand an accounting.''

On Nov. 30, Nancy magistrate Robert Finielz said that the action was well-prepared, ''serious,'' and ''important,'' but delayed assigning a date for a hearing, according to comments cited in L'Est Republicain. But on Dec. 4, he refused to hear the case.

''This decision constitutes an intervention of political power over justice, which tends to deprive the families of the two hostages with a means of action, in violation of the principle of separation of powers,'' lawyers Behr and Joel Lagrange said in a statement.

But for the families of the two pilots, the suit may already have had the intended effect. This weekend, Defense Minister Charles Millon invited the families to meet with him for the first time. On Sunday, he told a French television station TF3 that there would ''be consequences'' if the pilots were not released.

''I think the fact that things are now moving proves we were right,'' says Mrs. Souvignet.

''For three months, we've heard nothing, and now the government is starting to talk about it again.''

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