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Warrants for 3 CIA Officers Issued in Imam's Abduction

Prosecutors in Milan expand their inquiry; two Italian spies are indicted and arrested.

July 06, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Italian authorities ordered the arrests of a former CIA station chief, an Air Force commander and two other Americans and took a top Italian spymaster into custody Wednesday as they broadened their investigation into the CIA's alleged abduction of a radical Muslim imam.

The new warrants issued by prosecutors in Milan bring to 26 the number of Americans, most of them alleged CIA operatives, being sought in connection with the February 2003 abduction of Hassan Osama Nasr. None of the Americans named in the warrants are still in Italy or have been arrested.

The cleric, known as Abu Omar, was seized on a Milan street and taken to a prison in his native Egypt, where, he has claimed, he was tortured.

U.S. and Italian authorities believe Abu Omar was involved in recruiting terrorists, and Italian police have said they were planning to arrest him when the CIA intervened.

Two Italian intelligence agents also have been added to the indictment, the first official acknowledgment of apparent Italian involvement in the best-documented alleged case of a controversial CIA practice known as extraordinary rendition. This could have broad implications for hotly disputed European collusion in CIA anti-terrorism operations, in an episode seen by many here as a violation of national sovereignty.

Marco Mancini, the No. 2 official in Italy's military intelligence agency, SISMI, was arrested on suspicion of collaborating in the alleged CIA-run abduction, Italian authorities said. A second SISMI official, Gen. Gustavo Pignero, who is in poor health, was placed under house arrest.

Before the Italians' arrests, top officials had denied knowledge of the case. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi repeatedly said he was unaware of the abduction, and his government blocked efforts by the Milan prosecutors to pursue the case. When lead Milan prosecutor Armando Spataro sought the extradition of several of the American suspects early this year, Berlusconi's justice minister, Roberto Castelli, refused to cooperate.

A center-left coalition replaced Berlusconi's government in May, and it may be giving a better hearing to the Milan prosecutors. In marked contrast to the previous administration, Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government Wednesday night pledged "maximum cooperation" with the judiciary and expressed faith in the "institutional loyalty" of the state security services.

The arrests bolster a European report last month that denounced a global "spider's web" of collusion, including hundreds of alleged clandestine flights by CIA planes transporting terrorism suspects across Europe and into North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. The report said 14 countries, including Italy, apparently cooperated with or turned a blind eye to CIA operations that included a network of secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere to hold terrorism suspects.

Depositing suspects in countries with little regard for the Geneva Convention or other human rights treaties resulted in torture and other abuse, critics charge.

A statement from the Milan prosecutors' office said warrants had been issued for three CIA officers who participated in the abduction. Sources said one was the former station chief at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, whose indictment raises the level of the rendition case. An account in today's La Stampa newspaper said the station chief was in contact with SISMI's Pignero during the planning stages of the Abu Omar operation.

Sources said the fourth warrant was for Lt. Col. Joseph Romano, a commander at the Aviano Air Base in northern Italy run by U.S. and Italian forces. The Times previously reported that Italian investigators believe Romano received periodic reports from Abu Omar's abductors as they drove to the base, then aided them as they bundled him into a jet that transported him to Egypt, with a stopover at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Rome who was contacted Wednesday declined to comment.

Italian prosecutors, working for the last year and a half, built their case on wiretaps of the U.S. agents, who used their cellphones with abandon and left numerous photocopies of passports, credit cards and other information at the luxury hotels where they stayed.

Some of the phone calls were traced to the U.S. Embassy in Rome and to Castelli, the former justice minister, as well as to the Aviano base.

That the CIA operatives left such a trail suggested two scenarios: They were either extremely sloppy, or they believed they had Italian permission and did not need to cover their tracks. It increasingly appears likely that one Italian agency, such as SISMI, might have been aware of the operation while others, such as the counter-terrorism police pursuing Abu Omar, were not.

Italian judicial sources have said they believe that SISMI agents participated in the operation. But SISMI Director Nicolo Pollari testified this year that his staff played no part in the abduction.

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