Sun, Nov 22, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Lithuanian ‘war on terror’ prison in the spotlight

AFP , ANTAVILIAI, LITHUANIA

On the edge of a Lithuanian forest, the stone and redwood building blends into the pines, as mysterious as the US agents who allegedly used it to interrogate suspected al-Qaeda members.

About 20km from the Baltic state’s capital, Vilnius, a former riding school in the hamlet of Antaviliai purportedly hosted a secret CIA facility in 2004 and 2005.

Locals are far from surprised by allegations about the site’s role behind the scenes in the US “war on terror.”

“The trucks were coming and going non-stop, there were people who spoke English, black men working there,” retiree Ruta Boreikiene said.

Lithuania’s minority population is minuscule, so the men’s ethnicity caught residents’ eyes.

In August, citing unnamed former intelligence officials and logs of flights between Afghanistan and Lithuania, the US channel ABC reported that the former Soviet state had hosted a CIA facility. The move, ABC was told, was a trade-off for Washington’s staunch backing for Lithuania’s 2004 NATO entry.

The Lithuanian government has acknowledged that flights refueled in the country, but denied the prison claims.

Last month, however, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she had “indirect suspicions” about a lock-up. She was not in power when the alleged site was in operation, having been elected this year.

Lithuanian lawmakers launched a formal probe earlier this month. The findings are scheduled next month.

“We’re conducting our inquiry and we’re examining all possible sites,” inquiry chief Arvydas Anusauskas said on Thursday. “Details of our investigation will not be made public until we have completed it.”

The Lithuanian branch of the Baltic news agency BNS said the inquiry team visited the site last week. Anusauskas refused to comment.

On Wednesday, ABC had beefed up the allegations. Citing unnamed Lithuanian officials and a former American intelligence operative, it spotlighted the Antaviliai site.

The government hit back on Thursday, with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas saying there were “more important things in Lithuania than spending two days denying the gossip of ABC journalists.”

“We have to follow hard facts rather than rumors and wild tales,” he told BNS, saying Lithuania’s reputation was being tarnished.

“Therefore it is vital that we conduct an investigation and clear any doubts,” he said.

Officials at Lithuania’s national property registry said the building was constructed in 1992, a year after Lithuania won independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. It was sold in 1999 to two Lithuanian women who turned it into a riding school and cafe.

In March 2004 the site was purchased by Elite LLC, a firm registered in the US state of Delaware, Panama and Washington — which ABC claimed was a CIA front. Information showed it was sold for two million litas (US$863,000).

The new owners reportedly constructed a “building within a building,” where, according to ABC’s sources, suspects were interrogated using torture techniques such as sleep deprivation.

No planning applications involving the site have been made since 2002. But locals remember the apparent scale of the US owners’ work.

“Given the amount of earth they dug up and trucked out and the tonnes of concrete that was brought it, it seemed obvious to me that there was some serious construction going on,” said fortysomething resident Viaceslavas, who did not give his last name.

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