Italian Official: We Did Not Help in Alleged CIA Kidnapping of Radical Cleric

Italy's government and intelligence services were not aware of and did not participate in the alleged CIA kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in Milan, a Defense Ministry official told Senate committees Tuesday, amid growing evidence that the Americans did not act alone.

Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, in office at the time of the kidnapping, always maintained that his government and Italian secret services were not informed about the supposed anti-terrorism operation and had not taken part in it.

But prosecutors in Milan investigating the kidnapping arrested two Italian intelligence agents last week — the first official sign that Italians possibly were involved. The agents, Marco Mancini and Gustavo Pignero, have denied wrongdoing. Mancini was granted house arrest Tuesday night, his lawyer Luca Lauri was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency ANSA. "We think he has furnished proof that he had absolutely nothing to do" with the case, Lauri said.

CountryWatch: Italy

Prosecutors also are seeking the arrest of 26 Americans, all but one believed to be CIA agents.

Fighting terrorism with illegal methods "has never been accepted or practiced by the government of our country," defense official Giovanni Lorenzo Forcieri told the Senate committees. "This is also true for SISMI."

He said the SISMI intelligence agency learned about it after the fact from a member of the Muslim community and immediately informed prosecutors. He added that the new, center-left government of Premier Romano Prodi supports the prosecutors' investigation.

Forcieri said that it was "unthinkable" that the repeated denials by SISMI and the previous government would turn out to be false, and added that he was sure that if anyone was eventually found guilty, that person would have acted alone.

"Of course, then we will have to see if these individual responsibilities involve only one person or more," Forcieri told reporters after the session.

Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, an Egyptian cleric and terrorist suspect also known as Abu Omar, allegedly was abducted from a Milan street in February 2003. Prosecutors say the operation was conducted by CIA agents, calling it a breach of Italian sovereignty that compromised their anti-terrorism efforts.

They say Nasr was flown via the Aviano joint Italian-U.S. air base and Germany to Egypt, where he says he was tortured.

The operation is believed to be part of an alleged CIA program in which terrorism suspects are transferred to third countries where some allegedly are subjected to torture. The CIA describes such operations as "extraordinary renditions."