German Foreign Minister heads for U.S. in wake of decision to arrest suspected CIA agents

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier heads to the United States on Thursday for talks on the Mideast a day after German prosecutors issued arrest warrants for suspected CIA agents.

Steinmeier said he did not think U.S.-German anti-terrorism efforts would be complicated by the warrants issued Wednesday by prosecutors investigating the alleged kidnapping of Lebanese-born German citizen Khaled al-Masri.

"No, I don't believe so," Steinmeier said in Berlin. "The fact of the arrest warrants itself is a matter for the justice system that we can't comment further on politically at the moment."

Al-Masri says he was abducted in December 2003 at the Serbian-Macedonian border and flown by the CIA to Kabul, Afghanistan, where he claims he was abused.

He says he was released in Albania in May 2004, and told it had been a case of mistaken identity. The German government says it only learned of his detention after he was released.

Munich prosecutors are seeking 13 people they believe to be CIA agents involved in seizing al-Masri. It is not clear whether they will ever be identified, since the names are believed to be CIA aliases, or how they could be returned to Germany for trial.

The case comes as Germany and the U.S. enjoy improved relations under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who gets along with President George W. Bush better than her predecessor, Iraq war critic Gerhard Schroeder.

In Washington, Steinmeier is to take part in a meeting Friday of the so-called Quartet the European Union, the U.N., the U.S., and Russia over efforts towards a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting is something Merkel pressed for with Bush, and she has made the Quartet a priority of her country's six-month presidency of the EU.

Rights campaigners in Europe have seized on al-Masri's story to press Washington to stop flying terrorism suspects to countries other than the U.S. where they could face abuse a practice known as "extraordinary rendition."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials have declined to address al-Masri's case. However, Merkel has said the U.S. has acknowledged making a mistake, reports AP.

Opposition parties in Germany have accused the government of turning a blind eye to the practice. Italy has issued arrest warrants for alleged CIA agents and five of its own intelligence officers in a separate case.

In another case, Steinmeier faces a March 8 date to testify before a parliamentary committee about Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turk from Bremen held for more than four years at Guantanamo Bay and freed last year after Merkel intervened. The foreign minister faces political pressure over allegations that he hindered Kurnaz's return while he was Schroeder's chief of staff.

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