Thursday, July 06, 2006


Spy officials accused in cleric's abduction

By Christine Spolar and Alessandra Maggiorani, Chicago Tribune. Tribune senior correspondent John Crewdson in Washington and Sherine Bayoumi in Cairo contributed to this report
Published July 6, 2006

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

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 denied that Italy's intelligence service was informed of the abduction.

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

A spokesman for the law office of Luca Lauri confirmed late Wednesday 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.

Americans identified

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 out of the U.S. air base at Aviano in northern Italy.

The CIA employees included the former Rome station chief and his deputy, according to Italian police officials who had worked with the two men. Twenty-two other CIA employees are being sought in previous arrest warrants in relation to the Egyptian cleric's case. It was unclear, however, whether the new warrants included 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. These new arrest warrants allow prosecutors 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 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 Wednesday that the High Court of Emergencies agreed last month with an appeal that Nasr was being wrongly held and ordered his release. But enforcement of the emergency law against Nasr means he can be held indefinitely.

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.

Newspaper office searched

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

Police also searched the homes of Deputy Editor Renato Farina and court reporter Claudio Atonelli at about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday and took personal computers from both homes. Dozens of officers turned up at the newspaper about 9 a.m., said spokesman Alessandro Sallusti.

Sallusti said Libero had consistently supported the alleged U.S. involvement in the abduction of 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.

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