Americans sought in kidnap of cleric

Former CIA station chief accused in 2003 `rendition' in Italy

July 06, 2006|By CHRISTINE SPOLAR AND ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI | CHRISTINE SPOLAR AND ALESSANDRA MAGGIORANI,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ROME -- Two high-level Italian intelligence officials were arrested and four Americans, including the CIA's former Rome station chief, were being sought yesterday in a long-running investigation into the 2003 abduction of a Muslim cleric in Milan.

The arrest of the veteran agents of the Italian secret service known as SISMI is the first judicial action against Italian agents allegedly involved in the case of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, who disappeared from the streets of Milan on Feb. 17, 2003.

Prosecutors have pursued the case as a violation of Italy's sovereignty by the CIA. The Italian government has consistently denied that its intelligence service was informed of the abduction.

Prosecutors released no names of the six accused but provided professional details of the Italian intelligence officials arrested.

A spokesman for the law office of Luca Lauri confirmed late yesterday that Marco Mancini, chief of espionage for SISMI, was arrested. Gustavo Pignero, chief of an anti-terrorism unit in which Mancini once worked, was placed under house arrest, according to media reports.

The Americans involved were identified in a statement from the Milan prosecutor's office as three CIA workers and an active-duty military man who worked at the U.S. air base at Aviano.

The CIA employees included the former Rome station chief and his deputy, according to Italian police officials who worked with the two men while they were posted to Rome. Twenty-two other CIA employees are being sought in previous arrest warrants in relation to the Egyptian cleric's case. It was unclear whether the new warrants included other charges not in the prior warrants.

The Italian prosecutor in Milan argued for extradition of the 22 CIA agents in 2005, but Italy's justice minister, under the government of Silvio Berlusconi, refused to forward the request to Washington.

Berlusconi lost his bid for re-election in April. The government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi could reconsider the allegations of the CIA abduction and cooperation of Italian intelligence in that case. These new arrest warrants allow the prosecution to make another case for extradition.

The CIA practice of forcibly transporting terror suspects from Europe to countries in the Middle East where they allegedly suffer harsh treatment and even torture has been a controversial part of the U.S. effort to combat terrorism.

The arrests, known as rendition, accelerated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

The cleric known as Abu Omar has been imprisoned in Egypt for more than three years and recently was charged under the country's emergency law on the grounds that he was a danger to public safety.

His attorney, Montasser el-Zayat, reached by phone in Cairo, said yesterday that the High Court of Emergencies agreed last month with an appeal that Nasr was being wrongly held and ordered his release. But the enforcement of the emergency law against Nasr means he can be held indefinitely by Egyptian authorities.

At the time of his abduction in Milan, Nasr was under surveillance on suspicion of recruiting Islamic militants. The prosecutors have argued that his abduction upended a sensitive anti-terrorism operation run by Italian authorities.

In apparent coordination with the arrests yesterday, law enforcement agents searched the Milan office of an Italian daily newspaper, Libero, and confiscated the computer hard drives of two journalists there who had been reporting on the cleric's case, according to a spokesman for the newspaper.

Police also searched the homes of deputy editor Renato Farina and court reporter Claudio Atonelli and took personal computers from both homes. Dozens of officers turned up at the newspaper about 9 a.m., said spokesman Alessandro Sallusti.

"It was a blitz," Sallusti said about the raid that occurred after company attorneys were alerted. "We had no idea that something like that could happen. We weren't expecting it."

Sallusti said Libero had consistently supported the alleged U.S. involvement in abducting Nasr and the paper supports strong anti-terror programs. "We're ever so pleased that the Italian SISMI [the intelligence agents] did what they did, helping the Americans," Sallusti said.

Sallusti said Farina and Atonelli were asked by police to report for questioning in the next two days; Farina is covering the World Cup in Germany.

"This happened because we had internal sources at SISMI and, of course, we were talking to people inside," Sallusti said.

Christine Spolar and Alessandra Maggiorani write for the Chicago Tribune.

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