By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 6, 2006; A15
ZURICH, July 5 -- Italian prosecutors said Wednesday that they had developed firm evidence that an Italian intelligence agency collaborated with the CIA to kidnap a radical Islamic cleric in Milan in 2003. The finding prompted the arrest of two high-ranking Italian intelligence officials and the issuing of warrants for four Americans.
The Milan prosecutor's office announced that the two arrested figures in Sismi, the Italian military intelligence agency, were charged with kidnapping and abusing public office.
Warrants for the arrest of three unnamed CIA officers and a military officer brought to 26 the number of Americans charged in the case. None of them have been arrested.
Authorities did not name the Sismi officials either, but Italian media identified them as Marco Mancini, head of military counterespionage, and Gustavo Pignero, Sismi's chief for northern Italy at the time of the kidnapping.
They allegedly worked with the CIA to abduct Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, an Egyptian imam who was seized while walking to a Milan mosque in February 2003 and flown to Cairo on a U.S.-registered aircraft. According to court documents, Omar has said he was jailed by Egyptian security agents, who subjected him to electric shocks and other forms of abuse.
The case has drawn intense criticism throughout Europe from human rights groups and politicians who call it an example of how the CIA and its allies in European intelligence agencies have abused their powers and circumvented the law when dealing with terrorism suspects.
Counterterrorism police and prosecutors in Milan have also expressed anger, saying the CIA violated Italian sovereignty and disrupted a major criminal investigation by abducting Nasr. Milan authorities said they had Nasr under electronic surveillance and were close to arresting him when he disappeared.
Sismi officials and Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister at the time of the kidnapping and a close ally of the Bush administration, have repeatedly denied that Italian government officials took part in the kidnapping or knew anything about it. But the arrests of Mancini and Pignero indicate that a judge has agreed with prosecutors that there is evidence of Sismi's involvement.
Several Italian and European lawmakers said Wednesday that the arrests confirmed what they had suspected all along: that the Italian government worked directly with the CIA to kidnap Nasr. Others said they were shocked at the move and said prosecutors were going after the wrong people.
Former Italian president Francesco Cossiga praised Sismi for its performance in fighting terrorism and said the arrests would give encouragement to al-Qaeda. "Expect a message today from Osama bin Laden expressing congratulations and thanks for this precious help to Islamic jihad," Cossiga told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
Armando Spataro, the senior Milan prosecutor leading the investigation, did not return calls seeking comment. The CIA declined to comment.
One of the four Americans charged Wednesday was described as a military official at the joint U.S.-Italian Aviano Air Base.
Magistrates had previously issued arrest warrants for 22 Americans, all of whom the Italians said appeared to be CIA operatives.
The Milan prosecutors have requested the extradition of the 22. But Berlusconi's justice minister, Roberto Castelli, refused to pass along the request to the U.S. Justice Department. Milan prosecutors have said they plan to resubmit the request to the government of Romano Prodi, the new prime minister.
Special correspondent Sarah Delaney in Rome contributed to this report.