Journalists from German broadcaster ARD said they uncovered the identities of three alleged CIA pilots who helped to kidnap German citizen Khaled el-Masri, who was imprisoned in Afghanistan.
A Boeing 737, and possibly a CIA flight, leaving Mallorca's airport
According to journalists working for public broadcaster ARD's television program "Panorama," the three kidnappers live in the US state of North Carolina.
The journalists apparently received a tip from Spanish police who were investigating the case.
CIA agents allegedly used the Spanish island of Mallorca as a hub between flights presumably organized to abduct and transport terrorist suspects in Europe, Africa and Afghanistan.
Khaled el-Masri prior to testifying before a parliamentary investigation committee
One of those flights landed in Macedonia. There, CIA agents allegedly beat and abducted German citizen Khaled el-Masri, who they suspected of being a terrorist, on Jan. 23, 2004 and took him to a US-run prison in Afghanistan. They likewise imprisoned an Ethiopian man named Binyam Mohamed. Both of them, the agents claimed, had connections to the terrorist organization al Qaeda.
El-Masri was not released until five months later. During that time, CIA specialists apparently tried to break the will of the prisoners by playing music so loud, that one of his eardrums burst, el-Masri said.
CIA left traces
Spanish police were able to uncover the names of all the CIA agents on el-Masri's flight, most of which, however, were aliases.
German prosecutors on Thursday said Spain was helping them to identify the men who seized el-Masri.
The Munich-based state prosecutor responsible for the case, August Stern, told AFP the Spanish authorities had handed over a list of 20 names, believed to be US agents, who may have been involved in the kidnapping of Khaled el-Masri.
"We are making specific enquiries to the Spanish authorities," Stern said.
Stern also confirmed a Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper report that Spanish police tracked some of the CIA's pilots who had stayed in a hotel on Mallorca before they kidnapped al-Masri. They registered under aliases and used diplomats' passports.
Three of the pilots apparently used the false names Eric Fain, James Fairing and Kirk James Bird. Spanish authorities were able to identify the agents, because personnel at the hotel where they stayed on Mallorca made photocopies of their passports containing their pictures.
All three presumably worked for the North Carolina-based Aero Contractors company. The New York Times has reported on the firm's involvement in other CIA abduction missions, ARD pointed out.
Hesitant German authorities
El-Masri's attorney, Manfred Gnjidic, has requested that German prosecuting attorneys start preliminary proceedings against the alleged kidnappers now that their identities are known. The Munich-based prosecutor responsible for the case, August Stern, said more information was necessary before legal action could begin.
CIA agents allegedly relaxed on Mallorca between flights
But many journalists wonder why it is taking prosecutors to find out more about el-Masri's case. In an article on Thursday, the Süddeutsche Zeitung wondered why German legal authorities have been so hesitant about pursuing the issue.
"If the suspects involved were from Libya, then prosecutors would have ordered their arrest a long time ago," Green party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele told the paper.
Spanish police discovered the names of the suspects in spring 2005. A Spanish journalist passed on the information to el-Masri's attorney, Gnjidic, who turned the list over to German prosecutors in December 2005, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported.
El-Masri's case has sparked diplomatic tension between Washington and Berlin.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this year that the United States had admitted making a mistake in detaining Lebanese-born el-Masri.
The case heightened the controversy about the CIA's so-called rendition program in which terror suspects were seized in one country and taken to secret prisons in other countries for questioning.
US President George W. Bush admitted earlier this month that the CIA had covertly held prisoners in overseas prisons.
El-Masri sued former CIA chief George Tenet and other officials, but the case was dismissed by a US court in May. It ruled that a trail could compromise US security by disclosing secret information but added that if his story were true, el-Masri was entitled to "a remedy" from the US administration.
A German parliamentary committee is investigating the affair because of allegations that Berlin had known of el-Masri's plight but failed to act.