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Belgium tries to soothe U.S. anger

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 14, 2003

BRUSSELS - Reeling from a Bush administration threat to its cherished role as NATO host, Belgium sought Friday to placate American anger over war crimes laws that have triggered lawsuits against U.S. officials.

Defense Minister Andre Flahaut said there could be further modifications to the laws, under which suits have been filed against the Iraq war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks; Secretary of State Colin Powell; and other senior U.S. officials.

"Perhaps we have to look again at the way the law was modified . . . and see if there aren't some things we can improve," Flahaut said.

He said the government - which has already adjusted the war crimes legislation twice and condemned attempts to use it against Americans - would seek talks with Washington to find a solution.

At NATO meetings Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Belgian laws could keep American officials away from meetings at alliance headquarters in Brussels, and he threatened to block funding for construction of a new NATO building in the Belgian capital.

Construction of the new NATO building is to start in two years, with completion expected by the end of the decade at an estimated cost of $351-million. The United States is expected to pay about a quarter of that amount.

Rumsfeld's comments drew a mixed response from European allies, reflecting some of the Iraq war divisions NATO has tried hard to overcome.

"It's a matter of great concern and I well understand why he raised it . . . in such a vigorous way," British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon said.

But German Defense Minister Peter Struck accused Rumsfeld of "theatrics" and backed Belgian claims that recent changes to the law had removed the threat to Americans.

The amended law, rushed though in April, allows the government to refer complaints against citizens of democratic nations with functioning legal systems back to their homelands.

Flahaut pointed out that the complaint against Franks - introduced on behalf of 19 Iraqis - was thrown out in six days.

But the defense minister acknowledged "complicated and difficult" procedures had delayed a decision on an earlier complaint against Powell, former President George Bush, current Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf for their roles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

U.S. diplomats say the war crimes charges filed in Belgium illustrate how Americans could become targets of politically motivated complaints.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel insisted the amended law made U.S. citizens safe from such prosecutions. "We have changed it precisely to meet the fears of our American friends."

Under changes made in April, Brussels handed the complaint against Franks to the U.S. Justice Department through diplomatic channels, an official at the Belgian prosecutors' office said. Unless the lawyer for the Iraqis wins his appeal, Belgium does not plan to take further action, leaving it up to the United States.

Despite the changes, Rumsfeld said the law still left U.S. officials open to "harassment by Belgian courts enforcing spurious charges by political prosecutors."

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