'Spider's web' of rendition and secret prisons revealed in report

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The Independent Online

A European investigation has accused Britain and 13 other countries of colluding with the United States in a "global spider's web" of secret CIA prisons and illegal abduction of terrorist suspects.

Although the Council of Europe report yesterday offered no conclusive proof, it said that circumstantial evidence - including official logs of more than 1,000 CIA flights - suggested that secret American detention centres had existed in Poland and Romania. Other countries, including Britain, had colluded with the US in the abduction or "rendition" of terror suspects on their soil and the illegal transfer of prisoners across frontiers.

Dick Marty, a Swiss senator and leading member of the council, said: "It is now clear - although we are still far from having established the whole truth - that authorities in several European countries actively participated with the CIA in these unlawful activities."

"Even if proof, in the classical meaning of the term, is not as yet available, a number of coherent and converging elements indicate such secret detention centres did indeed exist in Europe."

Senator Marty said his conclusions were based on flight logs provided by the European Union's air traffic agency, Eurocontrol, statements from people who claimed to have been abducted by the US, and inquiries in several countries.

His report listed 14 European countries - Britain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Bosnia, Macedonia, Turkey, Spain, Cyprus, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Romania and Poland - as having colluded in the "unlawful inter-state transfers" of up to 50 terrorist suspects since the attacks on the US in September 2001. Similar transfers are also believed to have occurred earlier.

The frequent use of two airports - Timisoara in Romania, and Szymany in Poland - suggested internment camps existed near by, he said. The Council of Europe, a separate body from the EU, is the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Allegations that CIA agents flew prisoners through European airports to secret detention centres in eastern Europe and elsewhere were first reported by The Washington Post last November. It is alleged the system was used to avoid the normal legal procedures in the US, or home countries, and to expose the suspects to extreme interrogation techniques or even torture.

Human rights groups have claimed Poland and Romania housed "secret prisons" - allegations denied by both countries. Warsaw and Bucharest disputed the renewed claims in the report yesterday.

The Polish Prime Minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, said: "These accusations are slanderous... Not based on any facts." Norica Nicolai, the deputy head of Romania's Defence Committee, said: "If someone uses words like 'I believe that,' that person has the obligation to prove his statements..."

Tony Blair, suggested at Prime Minister's Questions that Britain had come out of the report relatively unscathed. He said: "The Council of Europe report has absolutely nothing new in it." Mr Blair had said previously that Britain accepted two US "rendition" requests in 1998 and refused two others. In his statement yesterday, he did not address the report's renewed allegations that Britain had also been a transfer and stop-over point.

The report followed, as an example, one aircraft with the registration number, N313P. The plane arrived in Timisoara from Kabul on 25 January 2004, after picking up Khaled El-Masri, a German who said he had been abducted by foreign intelligence agents in Skopje, Macedonia. Mr Marty said the plane stayed in Timisoara for 72 minutes before leaving for Majorca.

"Having eliminated other explanations - including that of a simple logistics flight - the most likely hypothesis of the purpose of this flight was to transport one or several detainees from Kabul to Romania," Mr Marty said.