updated 2/16/2006 10:12:55 PM ET 2006-02-17T03:12:55

A panel of Italian judges upheld the November acquittals of three North Africans on international terror charges, ruling that recruiting suicide bombers to fight against U.S. soldiers is not terrorism, a lawyer said Thursday.

The verdict by the Milan judges, released Wednesday, echoes an earlier one in the case when a lower court judge ruled the actions of the three men were those of guerrillas, not terrorists.

Government officials condemned the latest ruling. Justice Minister Roberto Castell apologized to the victims of suicide attacks and their relatives, saying “there is in me a great feeling of shame, bitterness and powerlessness.”

“At this point, I feel I have the duty to apologize to the hundreds of children, women and men who were massacred by suicide bombers, and to their relatives,” he said in a statement carried by Italian news agencies.

Italy has been a firm ally of the U.S.-led effort in Iraq and has peacekeeping troops there despite strong opposition to the war in Italy.

The judges ruled that recruiting suicide bombers could not be considered terrorism because during an armed conflict the only acts that count as terrorism are “acts exclusively directed against a civilian population,” according to a copy of the ruling given to The Associated Press.

“The recruitment of volunteers in Iraq to fight against the Americans cannot be considered under any circumstance terrorist activity,” it adds.

The three North Africans had been accused of recruiting suicide bombers for Iraq. Officially, they were charged with international terrorism, a charge introduced in Italy after Sept. 11, 2001.

The prosecutor had sought prison terms from six to 10 years.

But in ruling in January 2005, a judge acquitted Moroccan Mohamed Daki and Tunisians Ali Ben Sassi Toumi and Bouyahia Maher of international terrorism charges, ruling their actions were those of guerrillas, not terrorists.

The case has highlighted the frequent failure by prosecutors in Italy to win cases against terror suspects.

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