CIA sounded out Italy about "renditions" in 2001

ROME Thu Feb 15, 2007 3:40pm EST

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ROME (Reuters) - The CIA spoke with Italy's spy chief about kidnapping terrorism suspects in Italy and flying them abroad days after the September 11 attacks, according to testimony being used to prosecute U.S. and Italian agents.

A former Italian intelligence chief's testimony obtained by Reuters records this conversation taking place about 16 months before prosecutors say the CIA grabbed a radical Muslim cleric in Milan and flew him to Egypt, where he says he was tortured.

A Milan judge is expected to decide on Friday whether to indict 26 Americans, most of them believed to be CIA agents, and six Italians for kidnapping. Washington and Rome have never acknowledged any role in the affair.

"(The CIA station chief in Rome) asked my opinion, 'What do you think' about the hypothesis of carrying out the strategy of so-called renditions," Gianfranco Battelli, head of military intelligence agency SISMI back in 2001, told prosecutors.

The deposition of Battelli, who stepped down long before the abduction and is not a defendant, says the CIA official "made explicit reference to the possibility of grabbing a terrorist suspect in Italy, taking him to an airport and from there boarding him to a foreign country".

If Judge Caterina Interlandi orders a trial, it would be the world's first criminal case over renditions -- one of the most controversial aspects of U.S. President George W. Bush's "war on terror".

Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, says he was tortured under interrogation in Egypt after being grabbed off a Milan street, driven to a U.S. military base in northern Italy and flown to Egypt.

CLASSIFIED EVIDENCE

The case is being closely watched in Europe. The European Parliament approved a report on Wednesday saying governments helped conceal secret U.S. transfers of terrorism suspects.

A court in Munich issued arrest warrants last month for 13 suspected CIA agents accused of kidnapping a German of Lebanese descent and flying him to an Afghanistan jail, where he too says he was tortured.

The Italians linked to the Nasr case have been defending themselves tooth-and-nail, in the process making compromising statements about their American counterparts and each other.

All claim to have personally refused to help the CIA in the kidnap itself, except an Italian police officer who says he was told by the CIA's Milan station chief that the purpose was to recruit the imam as an informer -- not abduct him.

Battelli said he told the CIA chief he was on his way out of office and that the CIA should talk with his successor.

That man, Nicolo Pollari, is the highest-level Italian official facing indictment. He denies any wrongdoing.

Pollari has complained that evidence proving his innocence is being kept classified by Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

Prodi told one paper this month his government "is against any rendition but the case that you refer to concerns state secrets". Prodi, who took office in May, said the files were classified by his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi.

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Francesco Rutelli said the government on Thursday asked Italy's constitutional court to examine whether prosecutors had violated state secrecy laws by obtaining classified documents to push their case.

"There's no intent for a controversy, it is an act that has to be taken on the part of the government," Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told a news conference explaining the government's move.

Nasr was released from an Egyptian prison on Sunday four years after his suspected rendition. He says he was tortured with electric shocks, beatings, rape threats and genital abuse.

"I've been reduced to a wreck of a human being," he told Italy's ANSA news agency.

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