US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will inflame the transatlantic row over America's alleged torture of terror suspects in secret jails by telling Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and other European officials to 'back off'.
Rice, who arrives in Brussels tomorrow for a meeting with Nato foreign ministers, has been under pressure to respond to claims the US has been using covert prisons in Eastern Europe to interrogate Islamic militants. Human rights groups have alleged the CIA is flying terror suspects to secret jails in planes that have used airports throughout Europe, including Britain.
Rice's refusal to answer detailed questions on what has become known as 'extraordinary rendition' will anger many in Europe. Last week Straw wrote to Rice asking for clarification about some 80 flights by CIA planes that have passed through the UK. European politicians and human rights groups claim the flights and use of a network of secret jails breach international law.
State Department officials have hinted that Rice's response to Straw and other European ministers will remind them of their 'co-operation' in the war on terror. She is expected to make a public statement today stressing that the US does not violate allies' sovereignty or break international law. She will also remind people their governments are co-operating in a fight against militants who have bombed commuters in London and Madrid. She will drive home her message in private meetings with officials in Germany and at the EU headquarters in Brussels.
Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said Rice told him in Washington she expected allies to trust that America does not allow rights abuses.
An unnamed European diplomat who had contact with US officials over the handling of the scandals told Reuters yesterday: 'It's very clear they want European governments to stop pushing on this... They were stuck on the defensive for weeks, but suddenly the line has toughened up incredibly.'
Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative MP who will be chairing a Commons committee of MPs along with Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, has said Rice needs to make a clear statement. She 'does not seem to realise that for a large section of Washington and European opinion, the Bush administration is in a shrinking minority of people that has not grasped that lowering our standards [on human rights] makes us less, not more, secure'.
The row is set to escalate in Washington itself, as a US civil rights group says it is taking the CIA to court to stop the transportation of terror suspects to countries outside US legal authority.
The American Civil Liberties Union says the intelligence agency has broken both US and international law. It is acting for a man allegedly flown to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan.
In Britain, human rights group Liberty is to table an amendment to the Civil Aviation Bill that would oblige the Home Secretary to force any aircraft travelling through UK airspace suspected of extraordinary rendition to land and be searched by police and customs.
Straw is also facing calls to allow MPs and human rights groups access to Diego Garcia, the British island in the Indian Ocean being used as a US military base. It has long been suspected that the island has been used to hold or transfer terror suspects to secret US jails.