Italian spies arrested over kidnap of Egyptian cleric three years ago

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The Independent Online

The mystery surrounding one of Europe's most controversial "extraordinary renditions" has deepened after two senior Italian secret service agents were arrested and arrest warrants for four Americans were issued in connection with the alleged CIA abduction of an Egyptian cleric more than three years ago.

The arrest of the two Italian agents, working for the secret service, Sismi, was the first official acknowledgement that Italians may have been involved in the disappearance of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from a street in Milan in February 2003. Police have issued warrants for 26 American nationals but yesterday's arrests are the first time Italians have been directly implicated.

Police said they had arrested Marco Mancini, Sismi's No 2 and head of its counterterrorism agency, for his alleged role in the kidnap. Another Sismi official, identified as Gustavo Pignero, head of the agency's operations in northern Italy, had been placed under house arrest. Both were charged with kidnapping and abuse of power.

Members of Romano Prodi's new coalition government jumped on the arrests as proof that Italy's former government under Silvio Berlusconi colluded with the US in the abduction of Abu Omar, and in his rendition to Egypt where he claims he was tortured.

Senator Giovanni Russo Spena said: "Mancini's arrest confirms what we have said for a long time - the previous government knew about Sismi's involvement in Abu Omar's kidnapping by the CIA."

Mr Berlusconi, a long-time ally of the US, strenuously denied any involvement by either his government at the time or Sismi in the CIA's rendition programme and even summoned the US ambassador to explain Washington's actions when news of Abu Omar's abduction first broke. But a series of recent reports have cast doubt on Italian denials of involvement in the affair.

Numerous conservative politicians condemned yesterday's arrests for hampering Italy's fight against terrorism and defended Mr Mancini, who is well known for taking part in negotiations to free Italian hostages kidnapped in Iraq.

"Osama bin Laden is happy," said Jas Gawronski, a former Berlusconi spokesperson and Italian MEP. "In my country, instead of arresting terrorists we're arresting those who are hunting terrorists."

The abduction of Abu Omar a month before the invasion of Iraq infuriated Italy's anti-terrorism police who were investigating the hardline preacher at the time of his disappearance.

Prosecutors in Milan promptly opened an investigation and began issuing arrest warrants for a number of CIA agents whom they accused of carrying out the operation to abduct Abu Omar. Mr Berlusconi's government, however, repeatedly declined to forward the extradition requests to Washington.

The prosecutors' office in Milan confirmed that three of the four new arrest warrants were for CIA operatives and the fourth was for a US official who worked at the military air base in Aviano, where they allege Abu Omar was flown to Egypt following his kidnap.

Abu Omar is believed to be in jail in Egypt and claims he has lost his hearing in one ear after torture.