BRUSSELS - Belgian MPs were set today to impose a ban on wearing the Islamic burqa in public, the first clampdown of its kind in Europe, unless the nation's political crisis disrupts their vote.

The federal Parliament's home affairs committee voted unanimously on March 31 to endorse a nationwide ban on clothes or veils that do not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-face niqab and full-body burqa.

Those who ignore it could face a fine of €15-€25 ($28-$47) and/or a jail sentence of up to seven days, unless they have police permission to wear the garments.

The governing parties and opposition agree on the move, and the full house was widely expected to easily endorse the draft law.

But a deep political crisis is looming after a party threatened to pull out of the Government if tense negotiations between the French and Dutch-language communities on power-sharing were not finalised in 24 hours.

"Bans like this lead to a lose-lose situation," said Judith Sunderland, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so."

The group said there was no evidence that wearing the full veil in public threatened public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. And rather than help women who are coerced into wearing the veil, a ban would limit, if not eliminate, their ability to seek advice and support. The primary impact of legislation of this kind would be to confine these women to their homes, rather than to liberate them.

The French government will defy official advice and put forward a draft law next month to ban the burqa from all public places.

Despite warnings that such a law would be open to constitutional challenge, President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted yesterday that a ban was needed to protect the "dignity of women".

The debate on the law, to be completed by July, will scramble the normal political boundaries between right and left. It will also divide France's four to five million-strong Muslim community.

Although the full-length veil is worn by only 2000 women in France, its gradually increasing presence is seen by politicians on both the right and left as an affront to the official republican values of liberty and equality.

Mainstream Muslim organisations, while disapproving of the burqa or niqab, say that a ban could make even moderate Muslims feel that their religion is resented in France.

But the proposed ban was welcomed by a group which defends women's rights in France's troubled, multi-racial suburbs. Sihem Habchi, president of Ni Putes, Ni Soumises ("neither whores, nor submissive women") said the law would "turn a new page of emancipation for those women who are confronted daily with a choice between imprisonment [in a burqa] and social death".

Last month the Conseil d'Etat, the watchdog on the legality of actions by the state, warned that a complete ban on the burqa from French streets was unworkable and probably unconstitutional.

- Independent, AFP