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Italy investigator: Neighbors helped nail CIA

Italian investigators contacted other European countries to help piece together events surrounding the alleged kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric by the CIA, the chief investigator testified Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Italian investigators contacted other European countries to help piece together events surrounding the alleged kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric as part of the CIA's extraordinary renditions program, the chief investigator testified Wednesday.

The head of Milan's anti-terrorism police, Bruno Megale, said investigators worked with authorities in Germany, Spain and Switzerland. He was testifying at the trial of 26 Americans and Italian intelligence officers just hours before U.S. President George W. Bush arrived in Rome for a three-day visit.

While the case has been an awkward development in what have long been solid U.S.-Italian relations, it is not expected to be discussed during Bush's meeting with Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Thursday in Rome. Berlusconi has been one of Bush's most loyal European allies.

Megale, in his second session of testimony, said his office contacted German authorities in Saarbrucken to help fill in details of the 2003 disappearance of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr.

Megale had previously testified, as prosecutors allege, that Nasr, a cleric and terror suspect also known as Abu Omar, was snatched from a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003.

He was transferred by vehicle to the Aviano Air Force base about a five-hour drive away in northeastern Italy, then flown by plane to the Ramstein Air Base in southern Germany before being flown that same night to Egypt, prosecutors say.

Nasr, who was released from an Egyptian prison in February 2007, claims he was tortured there.

Germans contacted
Through German colleagues, Megale's office learned that a German cell phone assigned to a user on the Ramstein Air Force Base had been in Italy and that while the user was there he had called the cell phone of the Aviano Air Base security chief Col. Joseph Romano, one of the defendants in the case.

Megale also said at least six of the suspects who had been using Italian cell phone numbers had gone to Germany by the time of the alleged kidnapping. He said those six were believed to have been involved in the preparation.

Megale said his office also was in touch with investigators in Munich probing the abduction of a German citizen of Egyptian descent in Macedonia, Khaled al-Masri, also allegedly as part of the CIA's rendition program. He did not suggest any direct links with the Nasr case.

The contacts with Swiss authorities regarded the investigation into the improper use of Swiss air space in carrying out the alleged Nasr abduction, Megale said, while the thrust of the Spanish contacts focused on allegations that the CIA made stopovers on the Spanish island of Mallorca on rendition flights.

Megale said he suspected the involvement of the CIA from the reaction of then Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, also on trial, the first time they met after Nasr's disappearance.

Megale said the two had had a "warm relationship" during exchanges of information on terror suspects including Nasr beginning in October 2000.

'Rapport ... cooled down'
But "after Abu Omar's kidnapping the rapport with Bob Lady cooled down," Megale said. "I thought it could be the Americans were involved. We never discussed it directly but I didn't think it was necessary because his attitude was more expressive."

Megale also testified that none of his requests to intercept telephones belonging to officials of the Italian SISMI military intelligence were ever flagged as being protected as classified for national security.

The question is at the heart of a Constitutional Court challenge by the Italian government seeking to throw out the indictments because they were based on classified information. A decision is expected in July.

The trial in Milan will continued with cross examination.

The American defendants are being tried in absentia, and their Italian lawyers are all court-appointed, having had no direct contact with their clients.

Prosecutors have repeatedly pressed Rome to request their extradition.

Berlusconi's previous conservative government refused the request, while the previous, center-left government of Romano Prodi Prodi never responded.

A senior U.S. official has said they would not be turned over for prosecution, even if Rome requests it.