The United States has reportedly expressed regret to Germany over the kidnapping of a German citizen of Lebanese origin. The man claims he was mistakenly held prisoner for months as a terrorism suspect.
The US holds terror suspects in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay
According to Monday's edition of Der Spiegel newsmagazine, Washington has used unofficial channels to apologize to Berlin for kidnapping Khaled el-Masri. The 41-year-old German citizen says he was seized at the Serbian border with Macedonia in December 2003 and detained for five months at a prison in Afghanistan.
In an apparent case of mistaken identity, the Lebanese-born man was taken for an al Qaeda operative wanted by the United States for his connections to the suicide bombers who carried out the September 11 attacks in 2001. Der Spiegel quoted sources close to the German government as saying the case was deemed "highly sensitive" by officials in Berlin, who fear it could damage relations with Washington.
German prosecutors have opened an investigation into the matter and have said they are taking el-Masri's claims "extremely seriously" after they managed to corroborate his story up until the moment of his alleged arrest at Serbian-Macedonian border.
El-Masri, who lives in the Bavaria city Ulm, claims to have been arrested by border police as he was traveling on a tourist bus to the Macedonian capital Skopje.
The Shiberghan prison in northern Afghanistan.
He says he was handed over to officials whom he thought were Americans, who flew him to Afghanistan, where he was shackled, beaten, injected with drugs and questioned about his alleged ties to the Al-Qaeda network.
Guilty until proven innocent?
"They asked a lot of questions - if I have relations with al Qaeda, al Haramain, the Islamic Brotherhood," el-Masri said in a recent interview with the New York Times. "I kept saying no, but they did not believe me."
He was released only five months later without charge, he says. Set free near the border in northern Albania, by the time el-Masri made his way back to Germany, his wife and children had gone to live with her mother in Lebanon.
"I feared the worst - I feared something happened to my family," he said.
Why a German citizen on vacation would be abducted by US authorities remains unclear. However, the similarly spelled name Khalid al-Masri is linked to a man with ties to Mohamed Atta -- one of the September 11 terrorist who lived for several years in the northern German city Hamburg.
For the remainder of the inquiry, prosecutor Martin Hofmann said he had asked for the cooperation of the US, Macedonian and Afghan authorities.
"It is an unusual case," Hofmann said. "The political dimension is huge. Under German law, we can charge a person with kidnapping, but not a country. Countries cannot kidnap people."