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Lawyer Charges US General Tommy Franks with War Crimes in Belgian Court - 2003-05-14

A Belgian lawyer has filed a legal action in a Brussels court accusing the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General Tommy Franks, of war crimes. The action comes under a controversial Belgian law that allows Belgian courts to try foreigners for alleged war crimes.

Lawyer Jan Fermon filed the complaint on behalf of a group of Iraqis who he describes as victims of cluster bombs and other American weapons. Mr. Fermon says there is evidence to show that during the first two days U.S. forces were in Baghdad, they were not careful enough to avoid civilian casualties.

Mr. Fermon filed the papers just days before Belgian general elections in which he is running as a leftist party candidate.

Besides General Franks, another target of the lawsuit is Colonel Bryan McCoy. Mr. Fermon accuses him of permitting soldiers to fire on ambulances suspected of carrying enemy forces.

A Brussels prosecutor will study the documents before deciding if a case should be opened.

The senior U.S. general, Richard Myers, said Tuesday the complaint against the American military officers is very serious. On a visit to NATO headquarters in the Belgian capital, Brussels, he was quoted as saying it could affect travel arrangements by U.S. officials.

The suit comes under a controversial Belgian law that allows Belgian courts to try foreigners for war crimes. Belgian lawmakers recently amended the law, allowing prosecutors to refer cases to the country where the crimes occurred if that country has a fair justice system.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, speaking on Belgian VRT radio, condemned the lawsuit and called it an attempt to abuse the law. The United States has urged Belgium to avoid abuse of its legal system for political purposes.

Lawsuits have also been filed against foreign leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Former President George Bush. Observers say the actions have been politically and diplomatically embarrassing, but the law has brought about only one set of convictions. Four Rwandan Hutus, who were living in Belgium, were given long prison terms in 2001 for their part in the 1994 genocide against Rwandan Tutsis.