WASHINGTON - U.S. commandos in Baghdad have captured Abul Abbas, leader of the violent Palestinian group that killed an American on the hijacked cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Abbas was taken by American special operations forces during a raid Monday night on the southern outskirts of the capital city, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
Several of his associates were also detained during raids at several sites around Baghdad, defense officials said. Commandos, tipped off by U.S. intelligence to Abbas' whereabouts, also seized documents - including Yemeni and Lebanese passports - and weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, officials said.
American officials declined to say whether Abbas would be held inside Iraq, taken to a third country or detained at a U.S. base. They also declined to say whether he would face charges in the United States. Abbas was sentenced in absentia to life in prison in Italy for masterminding the Achille Lauro hijacking.
The man known as Abul Abbas, whose name actually is Mohammed Abbas, led a faction of the Palestine Liberation Front, a Palestinian splinter group.
His faction operated out of Tunisia until the attack in October 1985 on the Achille Lauro, after which it moved to Iraq. His group was also responsible for attacks in Israel.
"He got away from us, and we've been chasing him ever since," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "He's a big catch for us. It's an old score to settle."
The PLF faction under Abbas was a conduit for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service reported earlier this year that Israel captured several Palestinians who trained at a PLF camp in Iraq and were told by Abbas to attack an Israeli airport and other targets.
Abbas, either 61 or 62, had eluded arrest since four of his followers hijacked the Achille Lauro as it sailed from Egypt to Israel. They demanded that Israel release 50 imprisoned Palestinians.
During the hijacking, his followers shot and killed Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The hijackers then tossed Klinghoffer and his wheelchair off the ship.
Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, along with nine friends from the New York area, took the cruise to celebrate the couple's 36th wedding anniversary. They were among 500 passengers taken hostage. Klinghoffer's wife died of cancer four months after the hijacking.
The hijacking ended after Egypt negotiated with the hijackers. Abbas, who helped negotiate the surrender, and the four hijackers were flown out of Egypt on a jet that was intercepted by U.S. Navy fighters and forced to land in Sicily.
Tensions arose as soon as the plane landed. Armed U.S. and Italian soldiers faced off, each side demanding custody of the hijackers. The situation was only resolved after feverish telephone calls between Premier Bettino Craxi and President Ronald Reagan.
The Italians took custody of the four and promised to try them but refused to detain Abbas, saying that the evidence compiled by Washington was insufficient and that he held an Iraqi diplomatic passport. Within two days, he slipped out of the country.