Belgium has bowed to US pressure and agreed to limit the scope of its controversial war crimes law.
American officials signaled that the changes might defuse a row which has led to the threatened boycott of NATO's Brussels headquarters and soured relations between the two countries.
NATO's secretary general, Lord Robertson, said last night that he hoped a "major crisis" had been averted.
The "universal competence" law has been used to target Tony Blair, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, as well as former President George Bush.
In its original format, dating back to 1993, the law allowed virtually anyone to use Belgian courts to bring war crimes charges against virtually anyone else, regardless of where the alleged crimes were committed.
It was amended in April to allow the Belgian government to dismiss politically motivated or "propaganda" cases by transferring them to courts in the defendants' home country.
But the US insisted it wanted more done to prevent complaints being filed in the first place, preferably by repealing the entire law. Britain and Spain agreed. The issue exploded publicly when a case was made against General Tommy Franks, the US commander in Iraq, by a leftwing Belgian lawyer representing 19 Iraqis.
But under the amended procedure, the complaint was lodged on May 14 and disposed of a week later.
Earlier this month, in the bluntest confrontation yet, the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, warned publicly that American officials would be unable to come to NATO and hinted that financing for a new HQ would not be forthcoming.
Coupled with previous hints that the Atlantic alliance might relocate to a more pro-American eastern European country the government panicked.
There were also fears in Flanders that US cargo vessels might switch away from using Antwerp.
Relations between Brussels and Washington have been poor since the start of the Iraq crisis, when Belgium joined the French-led "coalition of the unwilling" in opposing war and splitting NATO.
According to some calculations, the country's entire international role, with some 55,000 jobs and up to €6bn (£4.1bn), could be at risk.
Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, insisted the amendments would make it harder to abuse the law.
These limit its scope to cases where Belgians or Belgian residents are directly involved, and introduce other legal safeguards to prevent politically inspired cases.
The amendments will be sent to parliament once Mr Verhofstadt's Liberal party and the Socialists form a new coalition government after their victory in elections last month.
The universal competence law was first applied against Rwandans implicated in that country's 1994 genocide but has been used since by human rights campaigners, political groups and others to file complaints against international figures.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003