Britain blocks air sanctions on Serbia

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN BROKE ranks with the European Union yesterday over plans to punish Serbia for its brutal treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

London's EU partners are outraged by the refusal of Tony Blair's government to enforce immediately a ban on the Yugoslav state airline JAT. The ban was formally approved by foreign ministers of the EU at a meeting in Salzburg last weekend. The Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was absent from the meeting at which the decision was taken.

Germany, France and most other member states suspended JAT's landing rights in their airports on Tuesday but Britain has told the regime of Slobodan Milosevic that JAT, which operates seven scheduled flights a week into Britain, can continue those services for a year.

Germany's foreign ministry said Britain's behaviour was a breach of EU "solidarity", which would undermine the message the international community wants to send Serbia.

Britain says it cannot "tear up" an international airline agreement signed with Yugoslavia in 1959. Whitehall says the agreement on scheduled flights predates the existence of the European Union.

"If we are telling Belgrade to observe its legal obligations towards Kosovo then how can we fail to observe our own international legal commitments?" a spokeswoman said.

That argument cuts no ice with other EU member states, however. Most have similar bilateral agreements with Belgrade, which they have opted to scrap, in spite of the risk of being sued for damages by JAT.

"It is likely we will be sued but for us it is a political decision. Legally we feel EU Council decisions are more binding than bilateral agreements," a senior Bonn source remarked.

"Perhaps for the British it is a question of money."