30 September 2005

Italy Seeks Former US Diplomat in Kidnapping

Italy Seeks Former US Diplomat in Kidnapping... By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

The warrant links an imam's abduction to the Rome embassy. A total of 22 people are sought. Rome - Italian authorities have ordered the arrests of a former US Embassy official here and two other people in connection with a "rendition" case in which CIA operatives allegedly kidnapped a radical Muslim cleric from Milan and flew him to Egypt, where, he has said, he was tortured.

The new arrest warrants bring to 22 the number of people sought on suspicion of planning and executing the plot and apparently are the first direct connection to the US Embassy in Rome. US intelligence officials in Washington, though refusing to acknowledge the operation publicly, have sought to portray it as conducted by the spy-world equivalent of contractors.

The warrants were signed by a judge this week in response to a petition from prosecutors Armando Spataro and Ferdinando Pomarici, an Italian judicial official said Thursday.

Italy, however, stunned Washington during the summer by attempting to prosecute 19 people, including a man identified in arrest warrants as the former CIA station chief in Milan, who are alleged to have taken part in the abduction. It is believed to be the first time that an ally has attempted to bring US operatives to justice in such a case.

Italian investigators said their review of telephone traffic among those who abducted the imam in Milan 2 1/2 years ago led them to the former US Embassy employee. She is believed to have made or received a number of calls aimed at coordinating and organizing the abduction and to have participated directly in the operation, according to papers filed in court by prosecutors.

Investigators found evidence that she checked into a Milan hotel 24 days before the kidnapping and traveled with the other suspects to the US-run Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, where Abu Omar was bundled onto a private jet bound for Egypt via the US military's Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Italian prosecutors said.

The prosecutors maintain that the participation of the woman is especially egregious given the diplomatic position she held at the embassy. According to public records, she served in the US Embassy in Rome until this year, when she was transferred to Latin America.

The Italian court file does not identify her as a CIA officer, though previous Italian court documents have said the team of agents worked under the former CIA station chief in Milan.

CIA officers often work overseas as US Embassy officials with the status of diplomats, even though they do not work for the State Department.

The imam's suspected captors appear to have been sloppy, leaving behind copies of their passports and credit card numbers and speaking openly on cell-phones that can be easily tracked by law enforcement officers, which is how Italian authorities identified their suspects and built their case.

The former station chief named was Robert Seldon Lady, who has since retired. Lady, a 51-year-old American born in Honduras, served in the Milan consulate and, by Italian accounts, directed Abu Omar's abduction and transfer to Egypt. His name has been widely reported in connection with this case.

Abu Omar eventually was able to make contact with his wife in Milan, whom he telephoned during a brief period out of prison. He told her he had been tortured and beaten. Italian authorities believe that Lady was present in Egypt at the time.

At last report, Abu Omar remained jailed in Egypt without charge. He has told associates that Egyptian authorities tried to persuade him to spy on Islamic radicals for them, but he refused.

Since retiring, Lady has bought a home near the northern Italian city of Turin. Italian police raided the home in June after the first warrants were executed.

New details emerged in court papers this week about what the inspectors found in the raid. In addition to a surveillance photo of Abu Omar taken a month before his disappearance, police found on Lady's computer hard disk information indicating he traveled to Cairo four days after the abduction last year. He left Cairo on March 7. Investigators also discovered research for determining the best way to travel from Milan to the Aviano base.

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