THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- French President Jacques Chirac allegedly guaranteed that Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic would not be transferred to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in exchange for the release of two French hostages in 1995, according to evidence presented at Slobodan Milosevic's trial Wednesday.
Chirac's office issued a firm denial of any negotiations to release the French pilots being held by the Bosnian Serb army in the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica.
"There were no negotiations for the liberation of these two pilots," presidential spokeswoman Catherine Colonna said. "These allegations have no relation to reality."
Mladic is one of the court's top two fugitives, along with wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
Milosevic read out parts of a transcript from a telephone conversation between Zoran Lilic, Milosevic's predecessor as president of Yugoslavia, and the army chief of staff, Gen. Momcilo Perisic. It was provided to U.N. prosecutors by an unspecified foreign intelligence service.
From the witness stand, Lilic confirmed the authenticity of the transcript, and said Chirac had gone along with the Yugoslav proposal to protect Mladic, then the head of the Bosnian Serb army, from the court.
In the December 1995 conversation, Lilic and Perisic agreed to write Mladic a guarantee that they wouldn't surrender him to the court in The Hague, and referred to similar promises Chirac had allegedly given earlier.
"I'll write this letter with the head of the FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) to guarantee him (Mladic) he will not be delivered to anyone from the tribunal. He has got the guarantee by Chirac and Slobodan (Milosevic)," the transcript quoted Lilic as saying.
At the time, Western diplomats were working out the details of the Dayton peace accord ending the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
"He (Mladic) has the guarantee that he will get the same thing from Slobodan and Chirac. Accordingly, he has to deliver these men to us, if he wants to, or he should come with us and place the men at the place of his choice," Lilic said in the intercepted telephone call.
The hostages were released two days before the peace agreement was signed in Paris. At the time, Yugoslav officials had been under fierce international pressure to free the pilots or face unspecified sanctions and stories circulated that the release was part of a wider deal.
Asked by trial prosecutor Geoffrey Nice if Chirac had actually offered such a deal to Mladic, Lilic answered, "I cannot give you a 'yes' or 'no' answer to that question." He said Mladic was needed to work out a peace deal and that "even Chirac supported him in a way."
Tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier had no comment on the allegation that Chirac had made an offer of protection for Mladic, but said such agreements "would have no binding effect on the tribunal" and its attempts to capture wanted suspects.
Milosevic, who is defending himself against 66 counts of war crimes, has been on trial since February 2002 and proceedings are expected to continue into 2005. The charges include genocide for the July 1995 massacre of at least 7,000 Muslims near the eastern Bosnian town Srebrenica, a U.N.-protected area, which prosecutors say Mladic personally oversaw.