ROME – An Italian judge on Friday ordered the arrests of 13 CIA (search) officers for secretly transporting a Muslim preacher from Italy to Egypt as part of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts — a rare public objection to the practice by a close American ally.
The Egyptian was spirited away in 2003, purportedly as part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition (search)" program in which terror suspects are transferred to third countries without court approval, subjecting them to possible torture.
The arrest warrants were announced Friday by the Milan prosecutor's office, which has called the disappearance a kidnapping and a blow to a terrorism investigation in Italy. The office said the imam was believed to belong to an Islamic terrorist group.
The 13 are accused of seizing Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr (search), known as Abu Omar, on a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003, and sending him to Egypt, where he reportedly was tortured, Milan prosecutor Manlio Claudio Minale said in a statement.
The U.S. Embassy in Rome and the CIA in Washington declined to comment.
The prosecutor's statement did not name the suspects, give their nationalities or mention the CIA by name. But an Italian official familiar with the investigation confirmed newspaper reports Friday that the suspects worked for the CIA.
The official also said there was no evidence Italians were involved or knew about the operation. He asked that his name not be used because official comment was limited to the prosecutor's statement.
Minale said the suspects remain at large and Italian authorities will ask the United States and Egypt for assistance in the case.
The prosecutor's office said Nasr was released by the Egyptians after his interrogation but was arrested again later.
The statement said Nasr was seized by two people as he was walking from his home toward a mosque and bundled into a white van. He was taken to Aviano, a joint U.S.-Italian base north of Venice, and flown to a U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, before being taken to Cairo.
It said investigators had confirmed the abduction through an eyewitness account and other, unidentified witnesses as well as through an analysis of cell phone traffic.
In March 2003, "U.S. authorities" told Italian police Nasr had been taken to the Balkans, the statement said. A year later, in April-May 2004, Nasr phoned his wife and another unidentified Egyptian citizen and told them he had been subjected to violent treatment by interrogators in Egypt, the statement said.
Italian newspapers have reported that Nasr, 42, said in the wiretapped calls that he was tortured with electric shocks.
On Friday, the Milan daily Corriere della Sera cited another Milan-based imam as telling Italian authorities Nasr was tortured after refusing to work in Italy as an informer. According to the testimony, he was hanged upside down and subjected to extreme temperatures and loud noise that damaged his hearing, Corriere reported.
Minale said the judge rejected a request for six more arrest warrants for suspects believed to have helped prepare the operation.
Judge Chiara Nobile ordered the arrests after investigators traced the agents through Milan hotels and Italian cell phones, said reports in Corriere and another daily, Il Giorno.
Il Giorno said all the agents were American and three were women.
Minale said a judge also issued a separate arrest warrant for Nasr on terrorism charges. In that warrant, Judge Guido Salvini said Nasr's seizure violated Italian sovereignty, according to Italian news agency Apcom.
Nasr was believed to have fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia and prosecutors were seeking evidence against him before his disappearance, according to a report in La Repubblica newspaper, which cited intelligence officials.
Corriere said Italian police picked up details, including cover names, photos, credit card information and U.S. addresses the agents gave to five-star hotels in Milan around the time of Nasr's alleged abduction. It said investigators also found the prepaid highway passes the agents used for the journey from Milan to the air base.
The report said investigations showed the agents incurred $144,984 in hotel bills in Milan, and that two pairs of agents took holidays in northern Italy after delivering Nasr to Aviano.
Italian-U.S. relations were strained after American soldiers killed an Italian intelligence agent near Baghdad airport in March. He was escorting a kidnapped Italian journalist after he had secured her release from Iraqi captors.
Germano Dottori, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Rome, said it is not unusual for intelligence agencies to have squabbles with allied countries but that he could not recall prosecutors directly involved in investigating or apprehending agents involved.
"At some point the Americans will begin to think they can't trust the Italians," Dottori said.