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Italy to demand CIA agents be extradited, tried

Tom Hundley and John Crewdson Knight Ridder

MILAN, Italy — An Italian prosecutor will demand that the United States honor its treaty obligations with Italy and extradite more than a dozen suspected CIA operatives to stand trial in this northern Italian city on charges of kidnapping a radical imam two years ago.

“We will ask for the extradition of all suspects named in the warrants,” Armando Spataro, the deputy chief prosecutor, said Tuesday.

An Italian judge on Thursday signed warrants requested by Spataro for 13 suspected U.S. intelligence operatives, but the preparation of extradition requests is expected to take a few weeks.

Prosecution officials also said they would enlist Interpol, the international police organization, to help track down any of the suspects outside the United States. Other suspects have not been charged.

Spataro is expected to ask the court later this week for warrants accusing six other operatives of laying the groundwork for the abduction by following the imam’s movements, but not of taking part in the abduction.

The total charged could rise to 25, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Tribune. At least four suspects have not been identified by police, and some of the cell phones used in the operation were purchased by two U.S. diplomats posted to the U.S. Embassy in Rome. Their names are also on the list of potential suspects.

One of those diplomats was known to Milan police as a CIA officer, the documents said. An embassy spokesman did not return a call Tuesday, but an embassy operator said the two diplomats no longer worked there.

Over the last two years, Spataro’s investigators have garnered the names used by the suspects from hotel, rental car and cell phone records and painstakingly pieced together the operation in an 80,000-word report.

What emerges from the report, which has not been made public, is a far more audacious covert operation than any previously known “rendition,” the CIA’s term for forcibly transporting a suspected terrorist from a foreign country to his or her homeland, usually for prearranged imprisonment and interrogation.

The imam, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, was stopped while walking to a mosque near his Milan apartment and hustled into a parked van, which speeded away toward the U.S.-Italian air base at Aviano.

There he was put aboard an executive jet and flown to the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, where he was moved to a second plane that carried him to Egypt. He had fled that country in the 1980s after the government outlawed a radical Islamic organization to which he belonged.

In most previously known renditions, suspects first have been arrested by local authorities, freeing the CIA from criminal liability for illegal seizure. But in the case of Abu Omar, police in Milan were unaware of what was taking place beneath their noses.

As a result, the CIA was required to mount an elaborately choreographed procedure that required weeks of planning, with lookouts posted in all directions within a half-mile radius of the scene. The operation cost the agency $150,000 in hotel bills alone, the report found.

Spataro’s investigators used the abductors’ cell phones to crack the case, relying on a frequent signal sent by every mobile phone to tell the cellular system where it can be found in case of an incoming call.

Using the records of those signals, investigators reconstructed the whereabouts and movements of the abductors on a minute-by-minute basis, down to the precise times their vehicles entered and exited the Autostrada between Aviano and Milan.

According to public and confidential documents, at least two of those for whom arrest warrants have been issued acted under their true names: a senior CIA officer posing as a U.S. diplomat in Milan and a Virginia man whose relationship with the intelligence agency is unclear. The Virginia man did not return a call seeking comment.

Most, however, used bogus identities created by the CIA for covert operations. Although the names may have been phony, the U.S. passports they carried were genuine. A prosecution official suggested that the United States is obligated under its treaty with Italy to divulge the real names.

Under the treaty the United States could arrest the suspects, after which Spataro would have 45 days to formally request their extradition.

The U.S.-Italian treaty also includes a mutual assistance pact under which the United States is obliged to take the testimony of people residing in the U.S. in connection with an Italian criminal investigation and to serve subpoenas and produce relevant evidence and documents.

The United States could ignore the treaty, however. The outcome may boil down to whether the U.S. will leave its operatives out in the cold or protect them at the risk of damaging relations with one of the few Western European governments that has supported U.S. intervention in Iraq.

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