French soldier recalls Petr Pavel’s successful rescue operation

Czechoslovak UNPROFOR base in Yugoslavia, 1993

Thirty years ago, a Czech unit serving in the UNPROFOR mission rescued over fifty French soldiers under siege in what was then still Yugoslavia. It was one of the greatest successes of the newly formed Czech army. The unit was led by Czechia’s president elect Petr Pavel.

Petr Pavel took part in the UNPROFOR mission in what was then still Yugoslavia, between the years 1991 and 1993. It was during this mission in January 1993, that a unit led by Mr Pavel, helped rescue more than 50 French soldiers under siege in Croatia. Radio Prague’s Alex Rosenzweig spoke to Éric Zanolini, who led the French unit, about their first encounter in battle conditions:

Eric Zanolini | Photo: YouTube

“I saw an orderly troop arrive, with someone calm and professional in charge, carrying out a mission in extremely difficult conditions, that could have gotten worse any minute.

“I sought him out that same evening. I had six nights behind me without sleep. We did a round of inspections, which ended late in the evening. I got to know the man, found him very friendly with a similar outlook on life, so I kept in touch.”

Éric Zanolini led a French unit deployed in the Krajina region, where Croats and Serbs were fighting each other. The aim of the French troops in the UN mission was to create conditions for dialogue, but this proved impossible. They had to retreat to a beach between the cliffs and the sea, losing two soldiers.

Photo: YouTube

The Czechs negotiated the evacuation of the French troops for about an hour. The Serbs were increasingly aggressive, with one of the commanders putting a machine gun to Peter Pavel’s head. Eventually they agreed on the evacuation terms - the French soldiers could leave if they left their armoured personnel carriers in place.

Photo: YouTube

“My men knew exactly what to do. They had to follow the Czech convoy, which did the main job and negotiated our free passage with the Serbs.

“In our circumstances we had neither the time nor the necessary conditions for negotiations. You must realize that there were tanks firing from one side and rocket launchers and artillery from the other.”

Photo: YouTube

Zanolini says his unit was extremely vulnerable in the crisis and it was a great advantage that a Czech unit came to their rescue, because the Czechs were close to the nations of the former Yugoslavia both culturally and language-wise.

“It was not a military operation, but a peacekeeping operation. So we didn’t have enough weapons to defend ourselves. This led to the launch of a NATO operation two years later.”

Czechoslovak soldiers in Yugoslavia | Photo: VHÚ

Both members of the French and Czech units were later awarded medals of bravery. Petr Pavel won international recognition thanks to the operation and eventually became chief of the Czech Army’s general staff and Chairman of the NATO Military Committee

Eric Zanolini and Petr Pavel | Photo: YouTube