Achille Lauro Mastermind Caught in Iraq

ByABC News

April 15, 2003 -- Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, has been captured by U.S. troops in Baghdad, U.S. officials said today.

The Achille Lauro hijacking particularly horrified and outraged the United States because one of the hijackers shot an elderly, disabled American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, then tossed him and his wheelchair overboard.

Abbas, believed to be around 55, was arrested by U.S. special operations forces during a raid Monday night on the southern outskirts of the Iraqi capital, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

U.S. forces raced all over the city, visiting several places before they nabbed him, Pentagon sources told ABCNEWS' John McWethy. They also netted several other people, some documents, passports, and weapons.

The administration touted Abbas' arrest as another example of the former Iraqi regime's ties to terrorists.

"One of our key objectives is to search for, capture and drive out terrorists who have found safe haven in Iraq," the Central Command statement said. "The capture of Abu Abbas in Iraq removes a portion of the terror network supported by Iraq and represents yet another victory in the global war on terrorism."

An American Killed

Abbas led a faction of the Palestine Liberation Front. Although his given name was Mohammed Abbas, he used the nom de guerre Abu or Abul Abbas.

He claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks, but the one that made him infamous was the hijacking of the Achille Lauro on Oct. 7, 1985.

He and several other terrorists used the Achille Lauro's hundreds of passengers as hostages to demand that Israel release 50 Palestinian prisoners.

In the course of the hijacking, one of Abbas' colleagues shot Klinghoffer, 69, as the American tourist sat in his wheelchair, then pushed him overboard.

Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, from the New York area, were on the cruise to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. Marilyn Klinghoffer died of cancer just four months after the hijacking.

On Oct. 9, two days after they had taken the ship, Abbas and his confederates gave up the ship and its passengers in exchange for safe passage to Tunisia, where the Palestine Liberation Organization was headquartered.

But U.S. fighter jets intercepted the airliner carrying the hijackers and forced it to land in Sicily. Italy took the hijackers into custody, but refused to detain Abbas, saying it had insufficient evidence to hold him. Abbas disappeared in two days.

Two weeks later, Italian magistrates filed charges against Abbas. In June 1986, Italy tried him in absentia and convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for masterminding the hijacking. The sentence was upheld on appeal.

The Achille Lauro's history ended in 1994, when it caught fire in the Indian Ocean offSomalia and sank.

Klinghoffer's daughters Ilsa and Lisa said in a statement today they were "delighted" with Abbas' capture, and urged U.S. prosecutors to "revive a federal indictment against Abbas for piracy, hostage-taking and conspiracy."

Unclear What Happens Next

It's not clear what will happen to Abbas next.

Nearly 18 years after the hijacking, the U.S. warrant for Abbas' arrest has expired, but there has been speculation in Washington that anti-terror legislation would provide grounds for prosecution. One official told ABCNEWS the U.S. government is confident charges would be worked out, since Abbas was responsible for the murder of an American citizen.

Italy has an outstanding warrant on him, since he was convicted in absentia there and given a life sentence.

Abbas had been in hiding until spring 1996, when Israel allowed him to move into the Gaza Strip as part of the peace process. Despite protests from Klinghoffer's daughters, neither Israeli or U.S. agents pursued him.

Abbas left Gaza following the start of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. He was known to be in Iraq, and said publicly that Saddam Hussein made him feel welcome.

In the years since the hijacking, Abbas has apologized for the slaying of Klinghoffer, calling it a "mistake."

When Abbas surfaced in April 1996, he claimed to have embraced the peace process.

In recent interviews, he has drawn a difference between the terrorism practiced by his secular organization and the religious fundamentalist terrorist organizations more prominent today.

He has spoken unfavorably about actions of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, whose military wing has carried out a spate of suicide bombings in recent years, and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.

ABCNEWS' John McWethy and Katy Textor in Washington contributed to this report.

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