MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania – It always happened at 1 a.m. In a secluded corner of this heavily guarded airfield, two snipers would creep across a rooftop and take their positions. Moments later, just below, a black minibus would arrive and wait.
Three times in 2004, and twice more in 2005, a jet landed and the black bus drove out to meet it. Large, mysterious parcels were exchanged that, according to a Romanian official who says he witnessed it, looked like bundled-up terror suspects.
The official, a high-ranking veteran with inside knowledge of operations at the base, said the planes then left for North Africa with their cargo and two CIA handlers aboard.
His descriptions, told on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press, add to suspicions surrounding Romania's involvement in "extraordinary rendition" — the beyond-the-law transfer of U.S. terror suspects from country to country by the CIA. Human rights advocates say renditions were the agency's way to outsource torture of prisoners to countries where it is permitted practice.
Romania's precise role is a little-reported part of the system that is being slowly revealed, often to the chagrin of U.S. allies. In an embarrassing reversal after years of denial, Britain admitted Thursday that its military outpost on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia had twice been used as a refueling stop for the secret transport of terrorism suspects.
The European Commission on Friday accused Poland and Romania of dodging its requests to clarify their involvement. Both countries deny accusations of wrongdoing, including a report by Dick Marty, a Swiss official working for the Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights watchdog, who accused the CIA of running secret prisons in the two countries.
Prisoners typically were shackled and kept naked and in isolation, he alleged, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Such treatment also would run contrary to Romania's own laws and its commitment to human rights, a key condition to the Balkan nation's 2007 accession to the European Union.
According to the Romanian official:
— U.S. pilots routinely filed bogus flight plans — or none at all — and headed to undeclared destinations.
— C-130 Hercules cargo planes and other U.S. military aircraft arriving from Iraq regularly parked in a restricted area just off the runway, where they feigned technical trouble and sat under guard for days at a time — awaiting repairs that never occurred.
— Three buildings on the military portion of the air base were strictly off-limits to Romanians but were frequented and controlled by the Americans.
"It was all set up and simulated to look like normal activity. But believe me, it was very unusual," said the official, who said he needed anonymity to protect himself.
"If you are 50 yards away, you say they are 'parcels,"' he said. "But I think people were on (the plane) and I think they were bundled up." The entire scene was completely out of character with normal aircraft arrivals or standard cargo protocol, he said.
But top Romanian authorities deny the CIA ran so-called "black sites" on their territory. While the official described a pattern of highly unusual flight maneuvers and covert American activities, he says he never saw a prisoner.
Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, former presidential security adviser Ioan Talpes said in an interview with the AP, had an arrangement with the CIA that gave the agency the right to use the base as needed.
"There were official arrangements of a secret and confidential nature which gave CIA planes the right to land at Romanian airports," said Talpes, who worked at the time for ex-President Ion Iliescu. "They had actions there that we didn't know about," Talpes said. He said Iliescu signed an agreement guaranteeing that Romania would secure the perimeter and otherwise not interfere.
John Sifton, who conducts independent human rights investigations, said the dates and descriptions of the flights described by the base official match the timing and routes of known CIA rendition flights recorded in Eurocontrol flight databases.
Those included an April 2004 flight from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that went out of its way to stop at Mihail Kogalniceanu before heading on to Casablanca, Morocco.
"It was a time when they were moving people around," Sifton told the AP. The Romania stopovers, he added, "look pretty shady to me."
Marty's report concluded that the CIA secretly held al-Qaida operatives, Taliban leaders and other "high-value detainees" in Romania and Poland between 2002 and 2005.
The report, citing unnamed intelligence officials, said five people either authorized or were aware of the Romania operation: Iliescu, Talpes, former Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu, Sergiu Medar, a former head of military intelligence, and current President Traian Basescu. Detainees were subjected "to interrogation techniques tantamount to torture" and underscored "a permissive attitude on the part of the Romanian authorities."
Basescu's office refused to discuss the allegations. "What business do we have with this?" it replied. Pascu called it "a closed subject," and Medar declined a request to be interviewed.
Beyond the midnight flights and the bus, the base official who spoke with the AP said he had questions about what went on aboard larger aircraft from Iraq that arrived at the base and then parked for several days, supposedly awaiting repairs.
"They misinformed. They lied," he said. "It happened many times and there was nothing anyone could do about it."
President Bush and other administration officials have confirmed the existence of the rendition program but have not named the countries involved. They say the U.S. does not engage in torture.
Romanian officials said the U.S. military has invested about $18 million in Mihail Kogalniceanu Airport, including a $4 million perimeter fence, a new hangar and road improvements. Romania has supported and provided troops for the U.S.-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Talpes, the former presidential security adviser, said Romanian authorities did not intrude on the U.S. "respected zone" at Mihail Kogalniceanu, used mostly to ferry troops and supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan — because they did not want to make "an unfriendly gesture."
Pressed about whether prisoners were tortured, he said bluntly: "Even if I knew that one of my allies did something, I wouldn't tell you."
CIA chief spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency had no comment about the black bus scenario, but he defended renditions as both legal and effective.
"They have disrupted potential attacks by taking terrorists off the streets, and they have allowed us, as well as our foreign partners, to gain invaluable intelligence on the terrorists who remain at large," Mansfield said.
Sen. Norica Nicolai, a former prosecutor who led a parliamentary investigation, said her probe found no evidence that the CIA operated a prison or conducted interrogations in Romania.
Nicolai said she was still waiting for Marty to respond to a September request to divulge his sources. "It's in our interests to try to see what happened. We are not a third-world country," she said.
But Cosmin Gusa, a leading opposition lawmaker, said a full accounting was unlikely. "Nobody wants to go deeper," he said. "They don't want to talk about this. This topic is a deadly one."