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Italy wants mastermind of Achille Lauro hijacking

Palestinian leader calls arrest illegal

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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Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer talk to CNN's Paula Zahn about the arrest of Abu Abbas, the mastermind behind the 1985 cruise ship hijacking in which their father was killed. (April 16)
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ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italy wants to extradite Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Abbas was seized this week by U.S. Special Forces in Iraq.

Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli said Rome sought Abbas' extradition in recent months from Egypt and Jordan and now will request the same from U.S. authorities.

U.S. forces captured Abbas, whose first name is Muhammed, and several others in a compound of three buildings on Baghdad's outskirts Monday night, U.S. officials said.

Palestinian militants under Abbas' command stormed the Achille Lauro in October 1985. During the hijacking, Leon Klinghoffer -- a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound American Jew vacationing with his wife of 36 years -- was shot and dumped into the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1990, Abbas launched an abortive speedboat attack on sunbathers on a beach near Tel Aviv, Israel.

Abbas has been sentenced to five life terms in absentia in Italy on 1986, and was also wanted by the United States.

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. In recent days, senior U.S. officials have pressured Syria not to harbor terrorists or members of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime trying to leave Iraq.

"We've said for a long time that Iraq [has] harbored terrorists, ... and in some cases have facilitated operations of terrorism," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at Wednesday's U.S. Central Command briefing in Doha, Qatar. "I think the arrest of Mr. Abbas makes it very clear that that was true."

A senior Bush administration official said the capture sends a strong message to terrorists: "You can run, but you cannot hide."

Erakat: Apprehension illegal

Abbas is general director of the Palestinian Liberation Front, one of multiple offshoots of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The U.S. State Department has designated the PLF a terrorist organization.

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

Erakat pointed to the Oslo accords, signed by Israel and the PLO and witnessed by the United States, Russia, Jordan, Egypt, Norway and the European Union, of which Italy is a member.

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

U.S. authorities filed a criminal complaint against Abbas over Klinghoffer's death in 1986, but a federal grand jury never indicted him. U.S. officials said they were scrambling to find out why the complaint was dropped and "actively discussing" what, if any, legal action to take next.

"Right now everybody is talking to everybody -- several agencies, including the Defense Department," a senior U.S. Justice Department official said.

In Iraq since 1994

In 1996, Abbas apologized for the Achille Lauro hijacking, in which hundreds were taken hostage and Klinghoffer was killed -- saying that he wanted to pursue peace with Israel.

Two years later, he told The Boston Globe that Klinghoffer "created troubles. He was handicapped, but he was inciting and provoking the other passengers. So, the decision was made to kill him."

The Achille Lauro hijacking came to an end after two days when four 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 detained. Italian Premier Bettino Craxi ordered the captives to be released, although Italy later charged Abbas and his co-conspirators.

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."

Since the cruise ship hijacking, Abbas has lived in Tunisia, Libya, Gaza and finally -- since 1994 -- in Iraq, where the PLF was based under the protection of Saddam Hussein. (Profile)

In an October 2002 speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, President Bush accused Iraq of harboring terrorists, including Abbas, while outlining his case against Saddam's regime. (Speech transcript)

One of several guerrilla leaders who belonged to a Palestinian parliament-in-exile, Abbas occasionally traveled to the Palestinian territories, although his movements there were restricted. In a 1996 interview, he told CNN the time for an armed struggle for a Palestinian state was over.

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