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Italy: Imam Kidnapping News To Us

The Italian government denied Thursday it had prior knowledge of the alleged CIA kidnapping of a radical Egyptian cleric in 2003, an operation that has led prosecutors to seek the arrest of 13 purported CIA operatives.

Carlo Giovanardi, minister for relations with parliament, addressed the Senate in response to opposition demands that Italy say whether authorities knew of plans to kidnap the Egyptian, considered an Islamic terrorist.

Italian prosecutors have accused the 13 CIA officials of kidnapping Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, known as Abu Omar, on a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003, and sending him to Egypt, where he reportedly was tortured.

The Egyptian preacher purportedly was seized as part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program in which suspected terrorists are transferred to third countries without court approval, where they face interrogation and possible torture.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has summoned the U.S. ambassador who was expected to meet with Italian officials Friday on the matter, Giovanardi said.

He said the reported operation was never "brought to the attention of the government of the republic or national institutions," often a term used to refer to Italy's intelligence agencies.

Therefore, he said, "it is not even possible" that Italy ever authorized such an operation.

Prosecutors have said they are preparing extradition requests for the 13 CIA operatives and have asked Interpol to help in tracing the suspects, all identified as U.S. citizens.

Nasr told his wife in an intercepted cell phone call from Egypt that he was tortured, the Milan prosecutor's office has said. He reportedly was hung upside down and subjected to extreme temperatures and loud noise that damaged his hearing.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome, the CIA in Washington and Egyptian officials have declined to comment.

The Milan prosecutor's office called the imam's disappearance a blow to Italy's own fight against terrorism. He had been under investigation for alleged terrorist activity in Italy at the time of his disappearance.

Responding to Giovanardi, opposition Sen. Tana De Zulueta referred to a report Thursday by The Washington Post that said the CIA station chief in Rome had briefed and sought approval from an Italian official before the purported operation, citing three unidentified CIA veterans said to have had knowledge of the operation and a fourth said to have reviewed it after it took place.

One of the veterans claimed in the report that the CIA "told a tiny number of people" about the action. The report said it was unclear how high in the Italian intelligence service the information was shared or whether Berlusconi was made aware.

At De Zulueta's reference to the article, Giovanardi shouted out: "It's false."

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