PARIS — 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.