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Europeans Investigate CIA Role in Abductions

Clues to a Mystery

In Milan, the Egyptian-born cleric attracted the attention of counterterrorism police soon after arriving in Italy in 1997 from Albania. Known as Abu Omar, his full name was Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. He was 42, a veteran fighter from the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan and a wanted man in Egypt, where authorities had charged him with belonging to an outlawed Islamic radical group.

Nasr frequently preached at two mosques in Milan that have long attracted religious and political extremists, according to Italian and U.S. officials. One of the mosques, a converted garage on Viale Jenner, is classified as a financier of terrorism causes by the U.S. Treasury Department, which has accused it of supporting "the movement of weapons, men and money around the world."


This Gulfstream jet was ordered by a firm that appeared to be a front company for the CIA, according to records. (Special To The Washington Post)

European Probes

Three official investigations have been initiated into renditions believed to have taken place in Western Europe.

ITALY

February 2003

A radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Omar was kidnapped in Milan, officials say. Italian investigators are pursuing the theory that covert agents -- possibly from the United States, Italy or Egypt -- were behind the abduction.

GERMANY

December 2003

A 41-year-old resident of Ulm, Germany, Khaled Masri, was detained during a vacation at the Macedonian border. He claims that he was flown to Kabul in January 2004, where he was held as a suspected terrorist, and that his captors spoke English with an American accent.

SWEDEN

December 2001

A parliamentary investigation has found that CIA agents wearing hoods orchestrated the seizure of two Egyptian nationals who were flown on a U.S.-registered airplane to Cairo. The men claim they were tortured in prison there.

_____More From The Post_____
Gonzales Defends Transfer of Detainees (The Washington Post, Mar 8, 2005)
Democrats Seek Probes on CIA Interrogations (The Washington Post, Mar 2, 2005)
Terror Suspect Alleges Torture (The Washington Post, Jan 6, 2005)
Jet Is an Open Secret in Terror War (The Washington Post, Dec 27, 2004)

Nasr reinforced the mosque's reputation by preaching angrily against the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and handing out vitriolic pamphlets criticizing U.S. policy in the Middle East. Italian counterterrorism police tapped his home telephone and kept him under surveillance.

"He was the kind of person who, let's put it this way, did not speak diplomatically," said Abdelhamid Shaari, president of the Islamic Cultural Center at Viale Jenner, who denies that either the mosque or the center sponsor terrorism or illegal activity. "When he attacked America, he did not speak in half-measures. He got right to the point."

When Nasr vanished, his family and mosque leaders reported it as a kidnapping, after a witness said she saw the abduction. The witness, a recent immigrant, said she was scared to repeat her story to the police, however, leading some investigators to speculate that Nasr had disappeared on his own and gone to Iraq to fight U.S. forces.

Italian police opened a missing person investigation, but the case stalled for more than a year. That changed in April 2004, when Nasr's wife unexpectedly received a telephone call from her husband. He told her he had been kidnapped and taken to a U.S. air base in Italy. He said he was then flown to another U.S. base, before being taken to Cairo.

The call was recorded by Italian police, who had kept the wiretap on Nasr's home telephone in place. Although transcripts have not been made public, Nasr's colleagues at the mosque said he reported that he had been tortured and kept naked in subfreezing temperatures in a prison in Cairo.

During the phone call, Nasr told his wife that he had been let out of prison in Egypt but remained under house arrest. His relatives have said they believe he was imprisoned again shortly afterward when news of the recorded conversation was reported by Italian newspapers.

The existence of the wiretap is revealed in sealed Italian court papers reviewed by The Washington Post. The documents, dated in the spring of 2004, include a judge's authorization to continue the wiretap and show that investigators were pursuing the theory that covert agents -- possibly from the United States, Italy or Egypt -- were behind the kidnapping.

Italian investigators have since determined that 15 agents, some of them CIA operatives, were involved in Nasr's abduction, according to reports in Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian daily. Investigators were able to trace calls made by the agents by linking calls made by the same phones near the mosque and Aviano Air Base on the day Nasr vanished, the newspaper reported.

The investigation is being led by Armando Spataro, a well-known counterterrorism prosecutor whose office has also built a hard-nosed reputation for winning convictions in cases involving the Mafia and political corruption. Spataro, who has worked closely with U.S. officials in the past on terrorism cases, confirmed that he visited Aviano last month but declined to comment further.

Capt. Eric Elliott, a U.S. military spokesman at Aviano, said Spataro met at the base for several hours with Italian military officials, who then forwarded a request for records to their American counterparts. Elliott declined to describe the records being sought, citing "an active investigation."

The U.S. Embassy in Rome declined to answer questions about whether American agents were involved in Nasr's disappearance. "We do not comment on intelligence matters," said Ben Duffy, an embassy spokesman.

Italian opposition lawmakers have demanded answers from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government on whether Italian agents or intelligence services played a role. But government ministers have remained tight-lipped.


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