June 24, 2005
An Italian judge has ordered the arrest of 13 CIA agents for allegedly helping deport an imam to Egypt as part of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, an Italian official familiar with the investigation said Friday.
The agents are suspected in the seizure of an Egyptian-born imam identified as Abu Omar on the streets of Milan in February 2003, according to the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The U.S. Embassy in Rome declined to comment.
Prosecutors believe the agents seized Omar as part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program, in which terror suspects are transferred to third countries without court approval, according to reports Friday in newspapers Corriere della Sera and Il Giorno.
Investigators traced the agents through check-in details at Milan hotels and their use of Italian cell phones during the operation, the reports said. All the agents are American and include three women, Il Giorno said.
The reports said another six agents were being investigated for helping prepare the operation.
They said police also received an eyewitness account from an Egyptian woman who heard Omar calling for help and saw him being bundled into a white van as he walked from his house to a mosque.
The report said Omar was taken to Aviano, a joint U.S.-Italian base north of Venice, and was flown from there to another U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, before being taken in a second jet to Cairo.
A judge also has issued a separate arrest warrant for Omar, news agencies ANSA and Apcom said. In that warrant, Judge Guido Salvini claimed the seizure of Omar represented a violation of Italian sovereignty, Apcom reported.
Earlier this month, Milan prosecutor Armando Spataro told The Associated Press that the prosecution was treating the disappearance of Omar as an abduction.
Spataro declined to say who was suspected for the alleged abduction, but he said Omar's disappearance damaged an ongoing operation by Italian authorities. He said he visited the air base in February.
Omar was believed to have fought with jihadists in Afghanistan and Bosnia, and prosecutors were seeking evidence against him before his disappearance, according to a report last year in La Repubblica newspaper, which cited intelligence officials.
Italian papers have reported that Omar, 42, called his wife and friends in Milan after his release last year, recounting he had been seized by Italian and American agents and taken to a secret prison in Egypt, where he was tortured with electric shocks.
Italian officials believe he now is living in Egypt, although Italian newspaper accounts suggested he was returned to custody shortly after his release.