Appearing shaky and pale but otherwise unharmed, two French combat pilots were freed Tuesday by Bosnian Serbs, bringing a happy conclusion to their 104-day ordeal and clearing an important obstacle to the signing of a historic Balkan peace treaty Thursday and the deployment of 60,000 NATO troops to the region.
The pilots, Capt. Frederic Chiffot and Lt. Jose Souvignet, who had been missing since their Mirage 2000 was shot down Aug. 30 during a NATO air raid, were handed over to French officials on a raw, snowy afternoon at a motel in Zvornik, overlooking the Drina River on the Bosnian side of the border between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Flown three hours later from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia, to an air force base outside Paris, they were greeted by French President Jacques Chirac, who flashed a relieved grin and said, "Bravo! Bravo!" Chirac escorted the men to the airport terminal, where they had a tearful reunion with their families.
As Souvignet's father hugged his son, he could be heard saying: "You gave us a heck of a scare."
French officials said the two men, both 29, are in good health, although they were taken for a checkup after their return to France.
Officials in Paris said France made no concessions to win the pilots' freedom; the Bosnian Serbs called it a goodwill gesture.
The bizarre, almost festive hand-over in Zvornik began when the pilots, dressed in their green flight uniforms, walked on wobbly legs from an army jeep into the motel. There they met with Gen. Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces who has been indicted in The Hague for war crimes, and Gen. Momcilo Perisic, the Yugoslav army commander.
In the lobby, they were formally handed over to the French chief of staff, Gen. Jean Philippe Douin. Before their arrival, Mladic had passed the time with Perisic and Douin, drinking slivovitz, a traditional plum brandy, quoting Serbian poetry and lecturing his French visitor on Serbian history.
Inside the motel, Mladic shook hands with the two airmen and affectionately patted the cheek of one of them. He also handed them large envelopes with medical records from their captivity, although he gave the wrong envelope to each pilot.
"I wish you a speedy recovery, and I want you to be pilots again, but next time on planes for peace," Mladic said.
Chiffot, the pilot of the downed aircraft, sat stoically during the presentation, but Souvignet, the plane's navigator, occasionally broke into a grin and spoke briefly, in English and French, with journalists. Souvignet said the two airmen had been confined separately at first but later were able to speak from time to time.
"There were no problems," said Souvignet, whose leg was injured when he parachuted from his plane. "We were taken care of. Of course we wanted to leave, but all in all we were treated well."
The ceremony ended with Mladic escorting the pilots back to the parking lot. Mladic, who led the Bosnian Serb war effort, spoke only of peace, and Douin listened patiently, saying only, "Thanks to what has been done here, the peace conference in Paris can go ahead as planned."
The pilots joined a police-escorted motorcade for the 100-mile journey to Belgrade. After the men boarded a French air force plane, Perisic and Douin exchanged kisses on the cheek, and Perisic offered the French general some final words of advice.
"Keep an eye on your pilots," the Yugoslav army chief said.
Pressure by Perisic, as well as by the Russian military attache in Belgrade, was believed to have been instrumental in securing the release of the pilots.
The Bosnian Serb army is heavily dependent on the Yugoslav army for hardware and resources. Most of its officers receive their paychecks directly from Belgrade, and Mladic still maintains a home in the Serbian capital, where his family lives.
The absence of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic from the ceremony was seen as evidence that the pilots had been under the control of military, not political, leaders, and that Karadzic's power is waning in the Bosnian Serb republic. Under terms of the peace agreement reached last month in Dayton, Ohio, Mladic and Karadzic, who also has been indicted for war crimes, must step down from their posts.
During the hand-over, no one discussed why the pilots were released now or what the Bosnian Serbs may have gotten in exchange. An official communique released by the Bosnian Serb army said the airmen were let go "in keeping with the traditional friendship between the Serbian and French people."
Diplomats in Belgrade speculated that the French may have agreed to help repair some of the damage to bridges, communication centers and other targets bombed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization last summer, although French officials said they made no concessions.
Russian television said that the Bosnian Serbs had asked that the Hague indictments be nullified and that Karadzic be permitted to travel to Paris to sign the peace accord but that neither demand was met.
Diplomats in Belgrade said it had become clear to the Bosnian Serbs that the bargaining value of the two pilots would drop dramatically after the peace agreement was signed in Paris. If the Bosnian Serb captors were to earn any goodwill from the incident, the exchange had to come now, they said.
"Mladic has been looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card," one Western diplomat said. "He has plenty of cash hidden away. He just needs a way not to be harassed for the rest of his life. I don't think he got it. The French can't cut a deal like that by themselves."
French efforts to release the pilots had begun soon after they were shot down. But the airmen's exact whereabouts were unknown.
The Bosnian Serb army denied it was holding the pilots or knew where they were. But Serbian television Tuesday showed news footage, taken the day the NATO plane went down, in which the injured Souvignet, walking with the help of what appeared to be Bosnian Serb soldiers, was sharply questioned, in English, by a TV reporter who demanded to know why they had been bombing Bosnian Serb villages.
Chirac sent a secret envoy to the region, enlisted the support of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who has links with the Serbs, and made personal appeals to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In recent weeks, Chirac's aides said, the French president had telephoned Milosevic eight times to press for the pilots' freedom.
Chirac announced the release in a nationally televised address Tuesday, praising the airmen's courage and reminding his compatriots that "not a day has passed during these three months that we haven't taken steps to find them and bring them home."
Chirac thanked Milosevic, "by whose action this unfortunate affair has finally come to a conclusion." And he paid tribute to Yeltsin, "without whom this ending would not have been possible."
Chirac also paid homage to the 56 French soldiers who have been killed in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, recalling "all these sacrifices made for the effort against war, against barbarism and against 'ethnic cleansing.' "
Unlike in the United States, where the fate of Capt. Scott F. O'Grady mesmerized the nation, the missing French pilots had remained in the background of public discourse here, partly because the government had declined to discuss efforts to free them.
But their case came to a head after the peace accord in Dayton, when the pilots' families, from the Vosges region of eastern France, launched a media campaign in hopes of pressuring the government to do more to free them.
Suddenly, the men's wives and parents began doing interviews, and the plight of Chiffot, a father of three, and Souvignet, a father of two, gained new sympathy, putting additional pressure on Chirac to act before the peace treaty signing Thursday in Paris.
On Tuesday, air force planes roared over the men's homes to show their support. The pilots' wives thanked the hundreds of French people who had sent faxes to the government, demanding action to free them. And Chirac's supporters raced to praise what they said were his tireless efforts on behalf of the pilots.
The pilots said they had been kept apart for the first six weeks of captivity but later were allowed to talk to each other and to exercise. Souvignet said the men communicated with their captors mostly in English, although he said he had learned "a few words" of Serbo-Croatian. "We were able to ask for bread and water and our elementary needs," he said.
Kraft reported from Paris and Murphy from Belgrade.