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U.S. captures mastermind of Achille Lauro hijacking

From David Ensor

Abbas in 1996
Abbas in 1996

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Abu Abbas, the Palestinian terrorist who masterminded the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, was arrested by U.S. forces outside Baghdad. CNN's David Ensor reports (April 16)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Abu Abbas, a convicted Palestinian terrorist who masterminded the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro on which a wheelchair-bound American was killed, was captured by U.S. Special Forces in the outskirts of Baghdad, U.S. Central Command said Tuesday.

Abbas, whose real first name is Muhammed, was apprehended Monday night in a compound of three buildings.

His capture was made possible by information from U.S. intelligence, officials said. Several others were also captured at the compound, the officials said. Various documents and passports were also seized.

"One of our key objectives is to search for, capture and drive out terrorists who have found safe haven in Iraq," Central Command said in a statement. "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."

A senior administration official said the capture sends a strong message to terrorists: "You can run, but you cannot hide." To other terrorists, he warned, "We will hold you to account."

Abbas is the general director of the Palestine Liberation Front, which the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization.

Palestinian Cabinet member Saeb Erakat said Wednesday that the United States violated the Oslo peace accords when it seized Abbas.

Erakat pointed to the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement, covering the West Bank and Gaza, that was signed by the United States, Israel, Palestinian Authority, European Union, Russia, Jordan, Egypt and Norway.

That agreement specified that no member of the Palestine Liberation Organization will be arrested or brought to court for any action that happened prior to September 13, 1993, the day the Oslo accord was signed, Erakat said.

There was no immediate response from the United States to Erakat's claims.

Soon after Abbas' capture, U.S. officials said U.S. indictments of Abbas for piracy, hostage-taking and conspiracy have apparently expired, although they could be renewed. U.S. officials said Abbas' fate --whether he will be sent to an Italian prison or face a U.S. trial -- is "unresolved."

A Palestinian source told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that Abbas tried to flee to Syria, but was turned away at the border and was captured about 50 miles west of Baghdad.

Palestinian militants under Abbas' command hijacked the Achille Lauro in October 1985. During the hijacking, Leon Klinghoffer -- a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound American Jew who was with his wife of 36 years on the cruise -- was killed and dumped into the sea.

"He created troubles. He was handicapped but he was inciting and provoking the other passengers. So, the decision was made to kill him," Abbas told the Boston Globe in 1998.

Klinghoffer's daughters said in a statement Tuesday they are "delighted that the murderous terrorist Abu Abbas is in U.S. custody."

"While we personally seek justice for our father's murder, the larger issue is terrorism. Bringing Abbas to justice will send a strong signal to terrorists anywhere in the world that there is no place to run, no place to hide."

The daughters, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, added: "We hope the U.S. prosecutors will be able to revive a federal indictment against Abbas for piracy, hostage-taking and conspiracy, and we urge them to do so."

A warrant for Abbas' arrest is outstanding in Italy, where he was convicted and sentenced to five life terms in absentia in connection with the hijacking. Since then, he has lived in Tunisia, Libya, Gaza and finally -- since 1994 -- in Baghdad, where he was under the protection of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. (Profile)

The Palestine Liberation Front, one of multiple offshoots of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was initially based out of Tunisia, but relocated to Iraq after the Achille Lauro hijacking. His group also was responsible for many attacks in Israel.

In an October speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, President Bush accused Iraq of harboring Abbas.

"Iraq has also provided safe haven to Abu Abbas, who was responsible for seizing the Achille Lauro and killing an American passenger," Bush said.

Abbas was a member of the Palestinian National Congress and occasionally traveled to the Palestinian territories, though his movements there were restricted. In a 1996 interview, he told CNN the time for an armed struggle for a Palestinian state was over.

The Achille Lauro hijacking ordeal came to an end after two days when four heavily armed terrorists and Abbas, who helped with negotiations, surrendered to Egyptian authorities in exchange for a promise of safe passage.

As an Egyptian airliner was flying them to safe haven in Tunisia, U.S. Navy fighter jets forced the plane to land at a NATO air base in Italy, where they were arrested. Abbas was soon released by the Italians.

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