updated 9/30/2005 6:01:54 AM ET 2005-09-30T10:01:54

Italian authorities have issued arrest warrants for three more purported CIA operatives accused of helping abduct an Egyptian Muslim cleric from Italy in 2003, a prosecutor said Friday.

Milan Prosecutor Armando Spataro told The Associated Press the new warrants were approved by Milan Judge Chiara Nobile on his request earlier this week, and bring the total number of purported CIA operatives sought by Italian police in the case to 22.

Earlier this year, authorities ordered the arrest of 19 people alleged to have helped kidnap cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar.

Nasr was allegedly abducted on a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003 before being flown to Egypt, where he was reportedly tortured.

Strained relations
Prosecutors claimed Nasr’s abduction a serious violation of Italian sovereignty and said it hindered Italian terrorism investigations.

The Italian government said it had no prior knowledge of the operation, and the case caused a major strain in Italian-U.S. relations.

The operation was purportedly part of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program in which terrorism suspects are transferred to third countries without court approval, subjecting them to possible ill treatment.

U.S. officials have declined to comment on the case and the U.S. embassy in Rome repeated that position Friday.

Nasr was believed to have fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia, and prosecutors were seeking evidence against him when he disappeared, Italian news reports said last year.

Spataro said the prosecution was preparing to ask for extradition requests to U.S. authorities for the 22 suspects.

Reports: Senior embassy official sought
He declined to discuss details of the new arrest warrants, but Italian newspapers La Stampa and Corriere della Sera said that one of those sought had been listed as a senior official in the U.S. embassy in Rome.

The reports said that suspect helped transfer Nasr from Milan to the U.S.-Italian air base of Aviano. From Aviano, Nasr was allegedly flown first to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, then to Egypt.

They said all three suspects held U.S. passports.

The reports also said Italian investigators had uncovered more details on how Robert Seldon Lady — who prosecutors have described as a former CIA station chief in Milan and who Nobile ordered arrested earlier this year — allegedly planned the abduction.

Police reportedly reconstructed the hard drive of the computer left behind in the house in northern Italy where Seldon Lady had been living, even after his wife had deleted the computer’s files, and found a photo of Nasr and other material.

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