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Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 16:27 GMT
France hits back over Karadzic 'tip-off'
Wanted posters showing Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic
Wanted but not found: Karadzic is still on the run
France's ambassador to Nato has strongly rejected reports that a French military officer tipped off the Bosnian Serbs about last week's failed operation to arrest Radovan Karadzic.

When there is a failed operation it is always tempting to find an excuse

Benoit D'Aboville
French ambassador to Nato
Benoit D'Aboville told the BBC that an alleged telephone conversation between the French captain and a Bosnian Serb police officer, apparently warning the Bosnian Serbs about the imminent operation, "never took place".

He said that the story was made up as an excuse for Nato's public failure to capture the Bosnian Serb wartime leader and the international war crimes tribunal's most wanted suspect.

But a German journalist who broke the story about the alleged leak told BBC News Online that he was standing by his story, which he said had been confirmed by intelligence sources.

Franz-Josef Hutsch, of the German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt, said Nato's rejection of the reports was "not credible".

Last minute escape

Nato launched its largest-scale operations yet to capture Mr Karadzic on Thursday and Friday last week.

Hundreds of Nato troops as well as helicopters and armoured vehicles were deployed to seal off the village of Celibici, near Foca. But Mr Karadzic is reported to have fled the area in the nick of time.

The Abendblatt and the UK's Times newspaper reported separately on Monday that the French officer had given the Bosnian Serb the tip-off about the plan.

That the conversation took place is not debatable

Franz-Josef Hutsch
Hamburger Abendblatt
The Times carried details of a transcript of the conversation which it said had been monitored by British intelligence.

Franz-Josef Hutsch said his transcript, which was less detailed, had come from another western European member of Nato's Stabilisation Force (S-For), but was not from the British source quoted by the Times.

Both transcripts quoted the French officer as telling the Bosnian Serb policeman: "Foca and its neighbourhood are always interesting for us".

"That the conversation took place is not debatable," Mr Hutsch told BBC News Online.

Map of Bosnia, Foca and Celebici
"The Times came on the scene with exactly the same quotation, word for word," he said, adding that he had not spoken to the Times until after the story had broken.

Mr Hutsch says he has received separate confirmation from one of Mr Karadzic's bodyguards that a warning had been given.

The bodyguard, known as Beli Vuk (White Wolf) said that Mr Karadzic had fled the village of Celibici in a black Cherokee jeep 45 minutes before the Nato forces arrived.

The bodyguard did not say whether the warning had come from the French captain.

Nato inquiry

On Monday, S-For said the allegations of a French tip-off were being thoroughly investigated.

Nato Secretary-General Lord Robertson said later in the day that there was no evidence to support the claims, which he described as "pure speculation".

This is not the first time French officers have been accused of helping out the Serbs, who are traditionally their allies.

Last December a French army major was jailed for spying for Belgrade ahead of Nato's Kosovo campaign.

See also:

04 Mar 02 | Europe
Karadzic 'saved by French leak'
12 Dec 01 | Europe
French major jailed as Serb spy
28 Feb 02 | Europe
Nato's Karadzic hunt draws blank
28 Feb 02 | Europe
The race to catch Karadzic
01 Mar 02 | Europe
Where are Karadzic and Mladic?
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