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CIA abduction case ignites controversy

German, US officials differ over Rice words about war on terror

BERLIN -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's effort to forge a common front with European allies in the war on terror touched off a diplomatic contretemps yesterday over whether the United States had specifically confessed to blundering in a CIA abduction case that has spawned controversy across the continent.

Rice, in an unusual concession to critics of American policy, acknowledged yesterday that mistakes have been made in the murky war against Islamic terrorists. She also pledged that the United States will make amends when it commits errors.

''Any policy will sometimes have errors," Rice told a news conference in the German capital, first stop on a four-nation swing through Europe that is meant, in part, to secure support for the secret campaign against terror groups. ''When that happens, we will do everything we can to rectify it."

But Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, speaking at the same packed news conference, said that the United States had owned up to making wrong moves in the case of Khaled Masri, a Lebanese-born car salesman living in the southern German town of Ulm.

Masri was snatched by intelligence operatives while on holiday in Macedonia on Dec. 31, 2003, spirited to a secret interrogation center in Afghanistan, and held incommunicado for five months during which he allegedly was roughly questioned about his supposed links to Al Qaeda. He was then flown to Albania and released, blindfolded, on a remote mountain road without explanation or apology after the CIA apparently concluded that he was who he said he was -- an out-of-work car salesman unlucky enough to have a name similar to that of an Al Qaeda fugitive named Khalid al-Masri.

''I'm pleased to say we spoke about [this] individual case, which the government of the United States has accepted as a mistake," Merkel told reporters as Rice stood beside her. ''I'm very happy that the secretary has repeated here that when such mistakes happen, they must be corrected immediately."

Rice made no objections to Merkel's remarks and shortly afterward departed for Romania, the second leg of a trip that will also include Ukraine and Belgium. But within hours, senior US officials accompanying Rice took issue with Merkel's comments -- insisting that the secretary of state had made no such admission of US mishandling of the Masri case, according to wire service reports.

''We are not quite sure what was in [Merkel's] head," a senior official told reporters, according to Reuters news agency.

One senior US official, as quoted by Reuters, did acknowledge that Masri had been detained and released in 2004 after the United States realized it ''no longer had evidence or intelligence to justify his continued detention" -- the first time, apparently, that a senior American official has openly admitted US involvement in the affair.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed suit against the CIA in US District Court in Alexandria, Va., on Masri's behalf, claiming the German-Arab was subjected to ''torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" in five months as a prisoner, during which time his wife and family departed Germany for Lebanon, believing him lost or dead.

Masri had planned to travel to Virginia to present his case but was refused admission by immigration officials over the weekend, according to his lawyer in Munich.

Prosecutors in Munich have opened a criminal investigation into the case, but say that US officials have not responded to their request for more information. August Stern, a prosecutor who is part of the office that is investigating the Masri case, said the request was sent about six months ago through the German Foreign Ministry.

Disagreement over what Rice told Merkel about the Masri case represented a setback on a journey intended largely to placate rising anger on the continent over allegations of CIA kidnappings, the transfer of terrorist suspects through European airports, and secret holding centers that US intelligence has allegedly operated on European soil.

During the Berlin news conference, Rice forcefully defended US covert operations against Al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups, insisting they were intended to protect other nations as much as Americans. ''This is essentially a war in which intelligence is absolutely key to success," she said.

Last night, Rice arrived in Romania where she faced more controversy over claims by the US activist group Human Rights Watch that the eastern European country was the site of a US interrogation center for captured terrorist suspects.

The Romanian parliament called for investigation into the allegations of the secret prison as Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu insisted the government had no evidence the United States shuttled prisoners through air bases in the country or operated secret prisons.

Despite the controversy, Rice secured continued US use of the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near the Black Sea, the site suspected to have housed a secret CIA prison, the Associated Press reported.

Farah Stockman of the Globe staff contributed to this story from Washington. Petra Krischok, news assistant in the Globe's Berlin bureau, also contributed.

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