US suspends £30m aid in row over war crimes court

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The Bush administration has underlined its refusal to co- operate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) by suspending military aid worth almost $50m(£30m) to 35 countries that have refused to promise not to prosecute American citizens. Its behaviour was condemned as that of "schoolyard bullies".

A further 43 countries have entered into impunity agreements with the US, which guarantee that US nationals can never brought up on human rights charges by the ICC while in those countries.

The State Department said yesterday that the 35 countries had failed to reach a 1 July deadline to provide the US with assurances that no American soldiers or military personnel would be charged and tried by the new court, for war crime offences allegedly carried out on their territory.

Washington says that the tribunal leaves American troops, deployed in 140 countries around the world, vulnerable to knowingly false and politically motivated prosecutions.

The cut in military aid could have serious consequences. For example, Colombia will lose money used to crack down on drug dealers. While about $5m of the $600m in this year's aid package is at risk, the effect could be more serious next year.

Martha Lucia Ramirez, Colombia's Defence Minister, said the countries were looking for a way to ensure the aid was not lost. "The honeymoon between the government of President Alvaro Uribe and President George Bush will continue for a long time because it is based on the conviction that there is no worse enemy for our people than terrorism," she said.

"The Colombian government is open to understanding the proposal of the United States, and to help find a solution without going against our principles or breaking the Colombian law."

The treaty establishing the ICC, which formally started work last year, was signed by the former president Bill Clinton in 1998. But he was unable to persuade Congress to ratify it. President Bush later rescinded the support of the US.

A report by Amnesty International showed that some of the 43 countries which gave in to American demands, including Bolivia and Afghanistan, were reliant on America for their military aid while others, such as Tonga, were dependent on trade with the US.

Ari Fleischer, President Bush's spokesman, said that the US decision was designed to protect American troops. He said: "These are the people who are able to deliver assistance to the various states around the world, and if delivering aid endangers America's servicemen and servicewomen, the President's first priority is with the servicemen and servicewomen."

But others believe the US is using its military and financial might to bully smaller countries. Human Rights Watch has accused US officials of engaging in a worldwide campaign to press smaller countries into compliance. Richard Dicker, one of the organisation's directors, said: "US ambassadors have been acting like schoolyard bullies."

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