Sunday 18 May 2003
America's top military officer has warned that Nato may have to move from its Brussels headquarters after an attempt to bring war crimes charges against General Tommy Franks, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, in the Belgian courts.
General Richard Myers, chief of the US general staff, intervened in the row with Belgium after American officials expressed fears that Belgian war crimes laws would expose Nato officers to the risk of arrest.
He said that the US government saw the lawsuit against Gen Franks and another senior American soldier, brought by a left-wing lawyer, as a "very, very serious situation" and said: "It clearly could have a huge impact on where we gather."
His comments reflected the anger felt by military officials of several Nato nations at the Belgian government's failure to prevent the lawyer, Jan Fermon, filing the suit. It was lodged last week under Belgium's 1993 legislation on war crimes and genocide. Its laws of "universal competence" allow prosecution of nationals of any country for war crimes or genocide, no matter where the crime was allegedly committed.
A Brussels-based diplomat told The Telegraph that it would be "clearly unwise" for Gen Franks to visit the alliance's headquarters while he faces the possibility of a war crimes prosecution.
A Nato official said: "The US expects the Belgian government to take the necessary action to dismiss the law suit and to be diligent in preventing abuse of the legal system for political purposes."
Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman in Washington, described the lawsuit as "ludicrous".
Mr Fermon, who is based in Brussels, launched the action on behalf of 17 Iraqis and two Jordanians who were said to have been injured or bereaved by US attacks.
He said that the accusations against Gen Franks focused on the bombing of civilian areas, "indiscriminate shooting" by US troops when they entered Baghdad, and the failure to prevent the looting of hospitals.
Mr Fermon has also charged a colonel in the US Marines with ordering troops to fire on ambulances bearing the Red Crescent symbol.
Nato officials fear that if the case proceeds unchecked, it will spawn further politically-motivated prosecutions, making it difficult for officials of all nationalities to travel to Brussels and for Nato to conduct business on Belgian soil.
The American reaction to the lawsuit has caused alarm within the Belgian government, which faces elections today and has belatedly woken up to the threat to its position as host to several international institutions, including the European Union.
A Belgian foreign ministry spokesman said that Gen Myers' comments were being taken "very seriously".
Any attempt to move Nato's headquarters from Belgium would be privately welcomed by some senior British military figures, who were dismayed by Belgian hostility to the war in Iraq and its support for moves apparently designed to weaken Nato's trans-Atlantic links.
There was anger when Belgium joined France and Germany in blocking a Nato plan to deploy Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, to defend it against attack from Iraq. Earlier this month Belgium hosted a summit with France, Germany and the Netherlands - all countries which opposed the Iraq war - and agreed to establish a headquarters in Brussels for a rapid reaction force, independent of Nato.
Nato moved to Brussels from France in the 1960s after Charles de Gaulle, the French president, withdrew his country from its military wing. At least 2,000 officials work at Nato's headquarters and that number will increase next year when countries from Eastern Europe join.
A Nato spokesman said a move from Belgium was "not very realistic" given the alliance's contractual obligations - and the fact that it would require consensus among all members, including Belgium. However, as one diplomat said: "Moving Nato from France seemed unthinkable until it happened."