ROME – Italy is considering taking in other prisoners from Guantanamo to help President Barack Obama close down the prison, the country's foreign minister said Tuesday, a day after Italy accepted two former detainees.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi promised Obama at a White House meeting in June that Italy would accept three people as part of the U.S. administration's bid to close down Guantanamo.
Obama said last month that he would miss his January deadline to close the prison, partly because he cannot persuade other nations to take the detainees.
Italy took in two Tunisian inmates Monday as a "concrete political sign" of the country's commitment to help Washington close Guantanamo, Justice Minister Angelino Alfano said in a statement late Monday.
Two other inmates from Guantanamo were sent to France and Hungary also on Monday, U.S. officials said, leaving 211 detainees at the U.S.-run prison in Cuba. Since 2002, more than 550 detainees have been transferred from the military base.
But France said Tuesday it did not plan to take in any more inmates following the arrival of Saber Lahmar, the second detainee taken in by France at Obama's request. The Algerian spent seven years at Guantanamo following his detention in Bosnia on suspicion of plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, but was later cleared for lack of evidence.
Adel Ben Mabrouk, 39, and Mohamed Ben Riadh Nasri, 43, of Tunisia, were immediately taken into custody upon arrival in Milan late Monday. Both men are accused of being members of a terror group with ties to Al Qaeda and of recruiting fighters for Afghanistan, officials said.
Italy plans to put the Tunisians on trial. Nasri spoke with prosecutors past midnight, and Mabrouk will be questioned in the next few days.
"He was heard, more than interrogated," attorney Roberto Novellino said of Nasri. "Physically he's fine, just tired because the trip was long." He said Nasri discussed why he was sent to Guantanamo and the circumstances of his transfer there.
Washington has asked Italy to take in more Guantanamo detainees and gave a list of names, which Rome is studying, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.
Frattini declined to give any details about the third detainee's identity or arrival date. But he said Italy has agreed "to take in others."
So far, "we haven't pinpointed yet" which detainees Italy will take, Frattini said.
Prosecutors said that two collaborators in Italy's witness protection program have given statements on the two Tunisians. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said he wants them to be put on trial and convicted quickly.
According to prosecutors, a lawyer and a transcript obtained by The Associated Press, both men frequented an Islamic center in Milan in the 1990s that a U.S. Treasury report at the time labeled as "the main Al Qaeda station house in Europe."
Lazhar Ben Mohamed Tlil, a key prosecution witness, said Nasri, known by his alias Abou Doujana, was head of an organization of Tunisians at a camp in Afghanistan where recruits received both ideological and military training. It was at this camp, the witness said, that he and other recruits were taught that "to kill infidels was the duty of every Muslim" and were prepared to carry out suicide attacks.
Tlil was recently questioned by U.S. investigators and identified from photos fellow Tunisian trainees in the Afghan camps, his court-appointed lawyer, Davide Boschi, told the AP.
Nasri had previously fought in Bosnia, according to the witness.
An Italian prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mabrouk and Nasri traveled from Italy to Afghanistan and, once there, maintained a "functional relationship inside the organization" of Tunisians here to recruit fighters for suicide missions.
Nasri was allegedly the head of the organization and was described by the U.S. military as a "dangerous" Tunisian operative when he appeared before a U.S. military review panel.
Obama confirmed last month that he would miss his January deadline to close the Guantanamo prison — partly because he cannot persuade other nations to take the detainees.
Monday's transfers leave 211 detainees at Guantanamo. Since 2002, more than 550 detainees have been transferred from the military base.
The U.S. alleged that Nasri traveled to Afghanistan, via Italy and Pakistan, and trained at an al-Qaida-linked camp. He fled from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, when it fell to the Northern Alliance and was wounded in the U.S. bombing of the Tora Bora area, where he was captured and turned over to American forces.
Nasri also had alleged links to Muslim fighters in Bosnia as well as Algerian militants, officials said in documents released after he appeared at the military panel. He was also previously convicted in Italy for passing counterfeit money, and was convicted in Tunisia of being a member of a terrorist organization and sentenced to 10 years, the documents said.
He told the U.S. military that he did not belong to a Tunisian Islamist group, much less head one, and denies ever trying to overthrow the Tunisian government.
In Italy, Nasri is accused along with eight other people of criminal association, aiding illegal immigration and terrorism charges stemming from 1997-2001.
Mabrouk had been held without charge at Guantanamo since February 2002.
He lived in Italy before traveling to Afghanistan in early 2001, according to the transcript of his hearing before the U.S. military panel that reviewed his case. U.S. authorities alleged he had links to al-Qaida and trained at one of its camps. The U.S. also alleged he had previously associated with extremists in Bosnia and had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in Tunisia for being a member of a terrorist organization.
Mabrouk's 2005 arrest warrant in Italy accuses him of international terrorism, falsification of documents, aiding illegal immigration, theft and drug trafficking. He is alleged to have been part of a group affiliated with the Milan mosque that provided logistical and financial support for recruiting fighters for Iraq.
Mabrouk was captured on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by Pakistani forces and turned over to the U.S.
He told the U.S. military panel that he only went to Afghanistan as an immigrant and did receive some weapons training but denied ever being in Bosnia or knowing about any prison sentence in Tunisia, according to U.S. military documents.