Italian spy chief faces sack over alleged role in CIA kidnapping

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Speculation is mounting that Nicolò Pollari, the head of Italy's embattled military intelligence agency Sismi, is about to be dismissed after he failed to convince magistrates that he was not involved in the CIA kidnapping of the Egyptian imam Abu Omar, in Milan.

Two investigating magistrates, Judge Ferdinando Pomarici and Judge Armando Spataro, subjected the Italian spymaster to a humiliating four-hour interrogation at the Palace of Justice in Milan on Saturday after he evidently was implicated directly in the 17 February, 2003, "extraordinary rendition" of Abu Omar.

Judicial sources quoted by La Repubblica said that two of his top operatives at Sismi, Marco Mancini, the head of the agency's counter-espionage department, and Gustavo Pignero, Mr Mancini's predecessor at counter-espionage, had implicated their boss. The two Sismi officers were arrested on 5 July on charges of assisting the CIA in the abduction of the 40-year-old Egyptian on a Milan street. Magistrates ordered on Saturday that the two be released.

The magistrates were not convinced by the testimony of General Pollari, who in the past always had insisted his service had nothing to do with the affair. The general has been placed under interrogation on suspicion of aggravated aiding and abetting a kidnapping, said the sources.

Romano Prodi, the centre-left Italian Prime Minister, wants to replace General Pollari as soon as possible if it is established that he sanctioned Sismi involvement in the kidnapping, sources at the Prime Minister's office say. Among those Mr Prodi is considering for the sensitive post, according to La Repubblica, is Giuseppe Cucchi, head of the military policy office at the Italian Defence Ministry, who was Mr Prodi's military adviser during his previous government between 1996 and 1998.

If evidence is not found against General Pollari, he will probably be eased out of the Sismi job with an appointment to another prestigious security job, said the paper's sources.

Mr Prodi is said to be considering a "summer blitz" on the intelligence leadership in which he would also replace Mario Mori, the aging head of the domestic intelligence service, Sisde.

There is growing concern that the rendition affair has left Italy's intelligence apparatus rudderless at a time when the country is more vulnerable to terrorist threats. In the past, Sismi has prided itself on having one of the most efficient intelligence services in the Middle East region.

"Although the leadership of Sismi has frequently worked in the region, and many in the centre-left acknowledge its work has been sensitive, it now could be called upon to make an extra effort," La Repubblica wrote. "But with its management effectively decapitated, it hardly can preside over the terrain with efficiency. Worst of all, it could be incapable of defending the national frontiers, as it has done up to now. This clearly is a worry for the government."

After the disclosure of the kidnapping and subsequent torture of Abu Omar, Italian magistrates issued arrest warrants for 22 CIA agents allegedly involved, straining relations between Washington and Rome.

Mr Prodi followed developments in the Abu Omar investigation while in St Petersburg for the G8 summit of leading industrial powers, but told reporters he stopped short of mentioning the affair when he met President George Bush. "I don't think that President Bush knows the Sismi initials," Mr Prodi said. "We didn't talk about it."