BRUSSELS, Belgium – The CIA has conducted more than 1,000 clandestine flights in Europe since 2001, and some of them secretly took away terror suspects to countries where they could face torture, European Union lawmakers said Wednesday.
Legislators selected to look into allegations of questionable CIA activities in Europe said flight data showed a pattern of hidden operations by American agents, and they accused some European governments of knowing about it but remaining silent.
Cases of terror suspects being secretly handed over to U.S. agents did not appear to be isolated, the lawmakers said in a preliminary report on their inquiry. European human rights treaties prohibit sending suspects to states known to torture prisoners.
"The committee deplores the fact that, as established during the committee's investigation, the CIA has used aircraft registered under fictitious company names or with private companies to secretly transfer terror suspects to other countries including Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Afghanistan," according to a copy of the report obtained by The Associated Press.
The CIA declined to comment, as did European Union officials, who have said previously that there was no irrefutable proof of such hand-overs, which are known as "extraordinary renditions."
The investigation began in January after news reports that U.S. agents had interrogated al-Qaida suspects at secret prisons in eastern Europe. But the focus shifted after people gave detailed accounts of being abducted by U.S. agents in Europe and whisked away to jails in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa.
Few of those who testified at the committee hearings touched on the alleged secret prisons in eastern Europe first reported by The Washington Post in November. Italian lawmaker Giovanni Fava, who wrote the report, said the committee would look into those allegations later.
The lawmakers based their initial report on data provided by Eurocontrol, the EU's air safety agency, and more than 50 hours of testimony by EU officials, rights groups and individuals who said they were kidnapped and tortured by U.S. agents.
Eurocontrol said the number of clandestine CIA flights over Europe was likely to be higher than 1,000 because the agency checked only flight plans for fewer than 50 aircraft used by the CIA.
"We were requested by EU Parliament to make an analysis of the flight routes for these planes. There may be others," said Jean-Jacques Sauvage, a senior official of the Brussels-based agency. He said Eurocontrol did not keep track of who was on the planes.
The report said that on a number of occasions the CIA was clearly responsible for detaining terror suspects on European territory and transferring them to countries where they could face torture.
Fava told the AP it was unclear how many people were transferred by the CIA on undeclared flights. He also said there was no evidence proving complicity by European officials, but called it unlikely that some governments, such as in Italy, Bosnia and Sweden, knew nothing about the CIA operations.
He accused the CIA of breaching the Chicago Convention, an international treaty governing air traffic. It requires aircraft used in military, customs and police operations to seek special authorization to land in signatory states.
U.S. officials previously said that as of late December, some 100 to 150 people had been seized in "rendition" operations involving detaining terror suspects in one country and flying them to their home country or another where they were wanted for a crime or questioning.
The officials, who agreed to discuss the operations only if not quoted by name, said the action was reserved for people considered by the CIA to be the most serious terror suspects. But they conceded mistakes had been made and were being investigated by the CIA's inspector general.
Fava cited as one example of "extraordinary rendition" the case of an Egyptian cleric, Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, who allegedly was abducted by U.S. agents on a street in Milan, Italy, in 2003 and returned to his homeland, where he says he was tortured.
Another case involved German citizen Khalid al-Masri. Documents provided by Eurocontrol indicated he was taken to Afghanistan in 2004 by a plane that originated in Algeria and flew via Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Skopje, Macedonia; and Baghdad, Iraq.
Al-Masri, who was born in Kuwait, told the committee that he was arrested by U.S. agents on the Macedonian border while on vacation. He said he was kept at a hotel in Skopje for several weeks before being flown to Afghanistan and jailed for five months. He said he was flown back to Europe in May 2004 and released in Albania.
Fava said the bulk of the clandestine CIA flights passed through Germany and Spain, where the United States has several air bases. Neither government had any comment.
The European Union also declined to address the committee's preliminary report.
"We have no comment. We will wait for the investigation to finish," said Friso Roscam Abbing, spokesman for EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini.