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US Tried to Buy Silence of German Kidnap Victim

Reuters/Mark Trevelyan | December 15 2005

BERLIN - Germany played no part in the U.S. abduction of a German citizen who was held as a terrorist suspect in Afghanistan, the government said on Wednesday, describing it for the first time as a possible crime.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered the government's strongest defense yet of its handling of the case of Khaled el-Masri, who is suing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for wrongful imprisonment and torture.

Without directly criticizing Washington, he voiced the fear it could drift apart from Europe in its understanding of international law and the conduct of the war on terrorism.

Separately, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble confirmed for the first time his predecessor was briefed on the affair in 2004 by then U.S. ambassador to Berlin, Daniel Coats.

"(The ambassador) said they had apologized to him (Masri), had agreed to keep quiet about it and had paid him money," Schaeuble told parliament.

In comments to newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Masri's lawyer dismissed the remarks as rumors designed to discredit his client.

Steinmeier said he was "nauseated" by reports suggesting that Germany may have facilitated Masri's abduction at the end of 2003 by feeding information on him to the United States.

"Let me make it clear: the government and (security services) did not aid and abet the abduction of German citizen el-Masri," Steinmeier told parliament.

The Masri case has drawn international attention at a time when Washington faces allegations that the CIA has run secret prisons in Europe and elsewhere, and covertly transferred suspects to countries where they may face torture.

An investigator for the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog, said on Tuesday his month-old probe had reinforced the allegations. Dick Marty said it was hard to believe some governments and secret services in Europe had not cooperated with the CIA.

But European Union Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini appeared to contradict Marty on Wednesday.

"At the moment, there is no evidence confirming the allegations made," he told the European Parliament, where some party leaders favor launching their own investigation.

NEW DENIAL

In Poland, President Aleksander Kwasniewski again categorically denied the country -- identified by campaign group Human Rights Watch as a possible site for CIA secret prisons -- had hosted such facilities.

But a German magazine raised fresh questions about U.S. activities at a training camp for Polish security services in northeast Poland. The Stern weekly said the Americans had set up a special zone there and sealed it off behind barbed wire and a 3 meter (10 foot) wall.

In the German parliament, Steinmeier said the government had alerted prosecutors, police and its own security services as soon as it learned of the Masri case, which he said was only after the latter's release last year.

"That is all evidence of what a state of law can, and to my understanding, should do when there are clues that one of its citizens has fallen victim to a crime," he said.

The government has not previously used the term "crime" in relation to the Masri case, although Chancellor Angela Merkel last week said Washington had acknowledged making a "mistake."

U.S. officials denied that, saying only that Masri was released once they found they no longer had sufficient evidence or intelligence to justify holding him.

Steinmeier affirmed the importance of sharing intelligence information with the United States, but added: "One thing is clear: the exchange of information never signifies any kind of approval or justification for the abduction of German citizens."

He welcomed U.S. assurances that its intelligence methods are fully within the law.

"However, I see with some concern that entirely different conclusions about the law, and perhaps more importantly, about the philosophy of law, are being drawn in Europe and in America as a result of the international terrorist threat," he said.

(Additional reporting by Huw Jones in Strasbourg)

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