The Foreign Secretary ordered the retreat after protests by Britain's EU partners against a Foreign Office memorandum, leaked in The Independent yesterday, that questioned the legality of the sanctions against Serbia for its repressive policy in Kosovo.
The about-turn was seen as a further blow to Robin Cook's reputation at the Foreign Office. His handling of the EU ban on direct flights from Serbia was attacked as "a shambles" by the Tories and as "cack-handed" by the Liberal Democrats.
It came as the European Commission in Brussels was considering legal action against Britain for undermining the effectiveness of the flight ban.
Foreign Office officials insisted the climbdown was triggered by the worsening crisis in Serb-ruled Kosovo, not by the clamour from Brussels.
The Government endorsed the flight ban at talks 10 days ago, but insisted it could not implement it for 12 months because of a 1959 agreement with Belgrade requiring either side to serve 12 months' notice before suspending landing rights.
After rising criticism at Brussels, the Foreign Office declared yesterday that the humanitarian situation in Kosovo was now so bad it outweighed legal requirements to honour the air services agreement. Mr Cook said Britain would now ban all flights from Yugoslavia, comprising Serbia and Montenegro, with immediate effect.
The climbdown came as more details emerged of how Serbian forces have been killing Kosovo's ethnic Albanian civilians and adopting a scorched- earth policy in the province.
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