PARIS - More than 20 countries colluded in a "global spider's web" of secret CIA prisons and flight transfers of terrorist suspects stretching from Central Asia to Guantanamo Bay, a European rights watchdog said today.
Council of Europe investigator Dick Marty said the US Central Intelligence Agency's well-oiled system fell short of torture but amounted to a form of "legal and judicial apartheid" that could exacerbate Muslim anger and spawn new terrorists.
The United States maintained a stance of neither denying nor confirming the allegations but challenged the credibility of the Council of Europe's report. Some European governments denied breaking laws, while others were silent or went on the attack.
European governments have faced embarrassing allegations over cooperation with US policies unpopular with domestic opinion. It has fuelled perceptions some were ready to ignore national laws due to US pressure to back the war on terrorism.
Marty said in the report many of the Council's 46 member states had provided limited cooperation with his inquiry, but witnesses, plane enthusiasts, confidential sources and flight records had helped him partially lift a "veil of silence".
"It is now clear - although we are still far from having established the whole truth - that authorities in several European countries actively participated with the CIA in these unlawful activities," said Marty.
"Other countries ignored them knowingly, or did not want to know," he said, adding he had amassed a great deal of circumstantial evidence of secret CIA detention centres but had "no formal evidence".
"Name and shame"
The Council can "name and shame" countries but cannot launch legal proceedings, the preserve of judicial authorities in member states.
Washington says it acted with the full knowledge of the governments concerned, acknowledges the secret transfer of some terrorist suspects between countries and denies any wrongdoing.
"There seem to be a lot of allegations (in the report) but no real facts behind it," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington, adding cooperation between countries had saved lives in the war against terrorism.
Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz told reporters: "These accusations are slanderous. They are not based on any facts and that is all I know and all I have to say."
The report said:
* Poland and Romania ran secret detention centres
* Germany, Turkey, Spain, Cyprus and Azerbaijan were "staging points" (from where operations were launched) for flights involving the unlawful transfer of detainees
* Ireland, Britain, Portugal, Greece and Italy were "stopovers" (for refuelling) for flights involving the unlawful transfer of detainees
* Sweden, Bosnia, Britain, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, Germany and Turkey handed over suspects
* Cairo, Amman, Islamabad, Rabat, Kabul, Guantanamo Bay, Tashkent, Algiers and Baghdad served as detainee transfer/drop-off points
Despite the lack of "smoking gun" evidence, Marty said there were a "number of coherent and converging elements (that) indicated that secret detention centres have indeed existed and unlawful inter-state transfers have taken place in Europe".
Marty said 10 cases involving 17 individuals had come to light but many of the Council's member states had been reluctant to provide information. More cases could follow.
Last month, EU investigators said they believed 30 to 50 people had been handed over to countries where they might face torture by the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Allegations of CIA abuses, first made by newspapers and human rights groups late last year, fanned concerns among many in Europe about US anti-terrorism tactics.
The US Senate Intelligence Committee this month approved legislation that would require US intelligence chief John Negroponte to report to Senate and House of Representatives panels about any secret prisons or detention facilities.