A German court ordered the arrest of 13 people behind the alleged CIA-backed kidnapping of a German citizen, believed to be one of the most notorious US "renditions" of a terror suspect, prosecutors said Wednesday.
El Masri claims he was abducted by US agents in 2003
The prosecutor's office in Munich, southern Germany, said the city's administrative court had issued the arrest warrants against individuals thought to be CIA agents on suspicion of abduction and grievous bodily harm.
Authorities are probing allegations by Khaled el-Masri, a Lebanese-born German, that he was abducted by US agents in the Macedonian capital Skopje on New Year's Eve 2003. He says he was flown to a prison in Afghanistan for interrogation before being released five months later in Albania.
Masri, a 43-year-old unemployed car salesman and father of six, has said he was drugged and tortured while imprisoned.
The case raised tensions when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Germany in December 2005 at the height of a controversy over the CIA's strategy of "rendition" -- flying terror suspects through European states to detention in third countries where they risk being tortured.
After the meeting with Rice, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Masri's case "was accepted as a mistake by the US government," although US officials later suggested her remark was the result of a misunderstanding.
Reports have indicated that US agents confused Masri with a terror suspect with a similar name who was linked to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Help from Spain
The plane in question lifting off from Mallorca's airport
The Munich prosecutor's office said it had received in December 2005 from Masri's lawyer a list of names of people on board the plane that took Masri to Afghanistan. The list originated from a Spanish journalist citing the country's Civil Guard.
The agents are believed to have taken off from the airport in Palma de Mallorca, picked up Masri in Macedonia and taken him to Afghanistan. In 2006, Spanish and Italian authorities provided further information about the flights, the prosecutor's office said.
"According to the information we have, the suspects listed in the arrest warrants are believed to be so-called code names of CIA agents," the prosecutor's office said in a statement. "The investigation will now focus on learning the actual names of the suspects.
"These findings, as well as other information uncovered in the probe, led to the strong suspicion that these 13 identifiable people were involved in the abduction of Masri," the office said.
Masri's lawyer Manfred Gnijdic said that although the suspects' extradition was unlikely, the warrants were a victory for his client.
"German authorities have not accepted the criminal behavior of CIA employees against a German citizen," he said.
TV report: US cooperation unlikely
German Public broadcaster NDR had reported earlier that most of the CIA employees sought lived in the US state of North Carolina. NDR said Spanish authorities had learned the identities of all 13 agents on board and had copies of some of their passports.
Although all of the names were believed to be aliases, NDR said it was possible, using other data, to learn their real identities. The report said three of the suspects worked for Aero Contractors, believed to be the CIA's secret airline.
NDR noted that the German arrest warrants were not valid in the United States and that US authorities had refused to cooperate with the investigation. If the suspects were to travel to the European Union, however, they could be arrested.
US lawsuit, German investigation
A German parliamentary committee has been charged with investigating the case
El-Masri has also filed a lawsuit in the US, but the complaint was thrown out by a US district court judge last year because of a perceived risk to national security. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is appealing that decision.
A German parliamentary committee is also reviewing the case. Members of Germany's former government of Social Democrats and Greens, which was in power at the time, have testified that they knew nothing about the abduction.
El-Masri is one of the most high-profile cases of a suspected "extraordinary rendition" undertaken as part of US anti-terror efforts. Italy is conducting a similar investigation into the kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in Milan.
A European parliamentary committee approved a report last week saying that 13 EU countries were involved in renditions to secret detention camps.
The arrest warrants come amid a controversy over the German government's alleged refusal to help a German-born Turk, Murat Kurnaz, who was held at the US lock-up for terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for four and a half years before being released in August without charge.