Madrid opens inquiry into CIA 'torture' flights

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The Independent Online

Spain has launched a judicial inquiry into allegations that CIA aircraft may have secretly used a Spanish airport to transport terror suspects to clandestine interrogation camps, Jose Antonio Alonso, the Interior Minister, said.

If the allegations proved true, Mr Alonso warned, "we would be looking at extremely serious, absolutely intolerable acts that violate rules for treating prisoners in a democratic society, and would demand a government response that would affect bilateral relations". The disputedeals a further blow to US-Spanish relations, already bruised by Spain's withdrawal of troops from Iraq last year.

Spain's intelligence service, the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia, knew CIA planes were making stopovers on Spanish soil and urged the American agency to stop the flights,El Pais newspaper said yesterday.

The Spanish request was prompted by a police report last June that said 10 flights were found to have used Palma de Majorca airport.

The CIA never acknowledged a connection with these flights, in which terror suspects were allegedly taken to third countries for interrogation in a programme known as "extraordinary rendition", El Pais said. Jose Bono, Spain's Defence Minister, said there was no proof the US had engaged in "illicit activities", and declined to criticise Washington. "We have no evidence, we have no proof, so I am not prepared to put a friendly, allied government on the spot on the basis of supposition and rumour," he said.

Mr Bono recently visited the US to rebuild relations damaged by Spain's withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Bringing home Spanish soldiers was the first political decision by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government elected last March, just after Islamist terrorists attacked Madrid and killed 191 people. Majorcan police were alerted to the "prison planes" by newspaper investigations of suspicious flights landing in or leaving the island's airport from March last year. Reports in El Diario de Mallorca led residents to denounce to the authorities the alleged illegal detentions, kidnappings and torture, El Pais said. Local prosecutors asked police to investigate, who found that four planes had made at least 10 stops in Majorca between January 2004 and January this year.

One flight arrived from Algiers on 22 January 2004 and took off the next day for Macedonia. There it allegedly collected a Lebanese-born German man, Khaled Masri, and took him to Kabul where he was beaten and interrogated over alleged links with al-Qa'ida. Other flights reportedly went to and from Libya and from Bucharest to Washington. Destinations included Ireland, Morocco and Sweden; countries of origin included Algeria, Romania and Egypt, El Pais said. The planes were said to be US-registered and used by Stevens Express Leasing, listed by The New York Times among those used by the CIA to transport suspects.

Mr Alonso urged caution: "The matter is in the hands of a judge and we will see what his conclusions are." The row has killed any nascent Spanish-American rapprochement. "I cannot comment on such a sensitive matter," a US embassy spokesman in Madrid said.