Milan Prosecutor Armando Spataro said on Friday the latest warrants allowed for the arrest of the suspects in any of the 25 European Union member countries.

Previously, Italy had issued arrest warrants for the 22 inside Italy.

Daria Pesce, a lawyer for one of the 22 accused, played down the significance of the warrants but acknowledged they meant that the suspects could no longer travel to Europe without risking arrest.

"That's the only problem," she said in a telephone interview to journalists.

Spataro has already sought the extradition of the 22 from the United States. But he is wrangling with the Italian government, which has indicated it may not forward the extradition requests to Washington, its top ally.

The 22 purported agents allegedly were involved in the kidnapping of cleric Usama Mustafa Hasan Nasr, also known as Abu Umar.

Kidnapping

The cleric, believed to belong to an Islamic terror group, was allegedly abducted on a Milan street on 17 Febuary, 2003, before being flown to Egypt, where he was reportedly tortured.

"I don't think there is any basis in the case"

Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister

The operation was believed to be part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" programme in which terrorism suspects are transferred to third countries where some allegedly are subjected to torture.

Justice Minister Roberto Castelli said he had signed the European arrest warrants, saying his signature was a necessary formality.

Castelli also said he has sought more court documentation on the case before making any decision on whether to forward the extradition requests to Washington.

Unprecedented

It was the first time such a request had been made to the Milan prosecutors' office, Spataro said. He said Castelli's request was unexpected since his decision was a political one that would not normally require a thorough knowledge of the investigation.

Spataro said he was also planning to submit a request to the Justice Ministry seeking judicial co-operation from the United States, which would allow him to interrogate suspects and witnesses and acquire documentation.

He said that while there was no time limit for Castelli to decide whether to forward the extradition requests to the United States, the minister would have to decide within 30 days on the request for judicial cooperation.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a top US ally, suggested the government may not push the prosecutors' request with Washington saying, "I don't think there is any basis in the case".

Castelli, for his part, has questioned Spataro's motives in pursuing the arrests, suggesting the prosecutor was a leftist militant and anti-American.

Support

Berlusconi has been a strong
supporter of the US war on terror

Milan's chief prosecutor responded by saying he fully supported Spataro, the investigation and its findings.

Prosecutors have identified one of the suspects as Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan who has since returned to the United States.

Lady's attorney, Pesce, said that even if Castelli forwarded the extradition request, Washington would "never" allow the suspects to be extradited.

Pesce had previously sought to have the Italian arrest warrant for Lady revoked, contending that her client should be protected by diplomatic immunity.

No immunity

That appeal was turned down by a Milan judge who said Lady lost his immunity when he left his post in 2004, and that consular officials could be prosecuted for grave crimes anyway.

Prosecutors say the cleric's abduction was a serious violation of Italian sovereignty, and that it has hindered Italian terrorism investigations.

The case has soured Italy's relations with the United States. The Italian government has vigorously denied any prior knowledge of the alleged abduction.

US authorities have consistently declined to comment on the purported abduction. A CIA spokesman and US State Department spokesman declined to comment on the warrants on Friday.

Earlier this month, Berlusconi said Italy had no evidence of illegal CIA activity on its territory, without referring to the inquiry into Nasr's alleged kidnapping.