MEPs to launch inquiry into CIA rendition flights

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MEPs are today expected to launch an inquiry into allegations that the CIA held terror suspects in secret prisons in Europe, despite being told that no evidence has yet been uncovered to back the claims.

But the EU Justice Commissioner, Franco Frattini, cautioned against drawing conclusions from media reports of hundreds of alleged detention centres in Eastern Europe and hundreds of secret CIA flights across the continent.

Speaking to the Strasbourg assembly, Mr Frattini said: "There is no evidence confirming allegations that have been made. Finding out the truth means getting evidence. No accusations can be considered founded without evidence."

But Elmar Brok, chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, said: "I believe this a crucial and fundamental issue. The West's credibility is at stake."

A temporary committee of inquiry can call witnesses and, though they cannot be forced to attend, European states tend to co-operate with such investigations.

The Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights watchdog, is already investigating the claims about the CIA, and Dick Marty, the Swiss senator leading an investigation, said on Tuesday his inquiries had "reinforced the credibility of the allegations".

Meanwhile, the issue has been raised with Washington by the European Commission and the UK which holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

Yesterday Mr Frattini said he supported Mr Marty. But he accepted denials of involvement from Poland, Romania and other European governments.

The Dutch Green MEP Kathelijne Buitenweg demanded that Mr Frattini reveal the precise content of the answers he had received from EU member states to the assembly. She said: "Are you happy with the answers? Can you tell us what the content was? You say people are not being tortured. Well, people are being virtually drowned, is that not torture? Perhaps you are misinformed."

Meanwhile, the German government was yesterday accused of stonewalling over its alleged complicity in the CIA's renditions programme amid reports that German citizens and residents had been abducted by American intelligence and interrogated in prisons outside the United States.

Government ministers were yesterday under pressure to explain whether Germany had played any part in the case of the Lebanese-born German Khaled el-Masri who was abducted by the CIA in Macedonia last year and flown to Afghanistan where he was held and interrogated for four months.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister and a top official in former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government, told a parliamentary panel that Germany had known nothing about the CIA's kidnapping of Mr Masri until after he had been released.

The Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said after meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Berlin last week that Washington had accepted that Mr Masri's abduction had been a "mistake". But opposition MPs from Germany's Green and Left parties attacked the government yesterday for failing to provide information on the case of another German citizen allegedly kidnapped by the CIA.

The Syrian-born German, Mohammed Zammar, is thought to have been abducted by the CIA in Morocco in 2001 and taken for interrogation in a military intelligence prison in Syria where he is believed to have been held ever since. Media reports claim that Mr Zammar was visited by German agents who questioned him in jail in 2002. Another alleged CIA renditions case involves the Turkish German resident Murat Kurnaz, who is believed be held at Guantanamo Bay. His American lawyer claims that his client was also visited and questioned by German agents while in the camp.