updated 4/12/2006 9:59:12 AM ET 2006-04-12T13:59:12

The justice minister has refused to send to the United States a request for the arrest and extradition of 22 purported CIA agents accused of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric from a Milan street in 2003, the ministry said Wednesday.

Justice Minister Roberto Castelli told prosecutors who have accused the Americans that he had decided against forwarding their request to Washington, a ministry statement said.

Castelli, who previously called the prosecutor “anti-American,” had indicated he was unwilling to press the case, which had already damaged U.S.-Italian relations.

It was unclear whether the prosecutors’ extradition request would be forwarded to Washington by a new government, expected to be headed by the center-left after parliamentary elections held Sunday and Monday.

Castelli is a member of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government, which according to official results, was voted out of office. A new government is not expected to be formed until late May.

The prosecutors have accused 22 Americans of involvement in what they say was the 2003 kidnapping of the cleric — terrorist suspect Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar.

They claim he was abducted by the CIA and spirited away to a U.S.-Italian air base, flown to Germany and then to Egypt, where he says he was tortured.

The operation is believed to be part of an “extraordinary rendition” strategy to transfer terrorism suspects to third countries where some allegedly are subject to torture. Among those sought by the prosecutors is a former CIA station chief in Milan who has since returned to the United States.

Prosecutor Armando Spataro was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

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