April 17, 2003
Political Fight Wages Over Abbas
The capture of Mohammed "Abu" Abbas may advance the U.S. war on terror, but it also could set off a political time bomb.
Less than a day after U.S. Special Operations Forces in Baghdad nabbed the mastermind of the infamous 1985 Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking, parties ranging from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to Italian authorities to PLO officials fought to influence his fate.
On Wednesday, the ADL called on Attorney General John Ashcroft to bring Abbas to the United States to stand trial for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jewish passenger who was shot after the ship was hijacked. Klinghoffer was then dumped in his wheelchair into the Mediterranean.
The United States should be the country to bring Abbas to justice because "it's an American citizen who was murdered," argued Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director. "We urge the Department of Justice to seize this moment to strike another blow in this nation's war on terrorism."
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority demanded that Abbas be freed, saying his arrest violated the Oslo peace accords and subsequent interim deals.
"We demand the United States release Abu Abbas," Palestinian Authority Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters. "It has no right to imprison him."
According to Erekat, the Israeli-Palestinian peace pact, brokered by the United States, said PLO members should not be detained or charged for any terrorist attacks they committed before Sept. 13, 1993.
With apparent American and Israeli approval, Abbas was allowed to return to Palestinian areas several times starting in 1996, and even lived openly in the Gaza Strip for a time.
Israeli officials in the United States could not be reached for comment Wednesday, the eve of Passover.
Meanwhile, Italy -- which let Abbas leave the country immediately after the attack rather than fall into U.S. hands and then, in 1986, tried him in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison -- pledged to seek his extradition.
"We will have to clarify some legal questions as to whom to request the extradition, which we'll do as soon as possible," Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli told The Associated Press.
Abbas, 54, head of the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), a PLO faction, planned the 1985 hijacking of the Italian luxury liner. Four terrorists seized the ship with 410 people aboard off the Egyptian coast.
Abbas later called the killing of Klinghoffer a "mistake," though he also claimed that Klinghoffer was "provoking" other passengers.
Though Abbas was said to have renounced terror, he told the Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds in 1998 that the "struggle between us and Israel does not stop at any limits."
The hijackers shot the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer, 69, in the head and chest as his wife, Marilyn, watched, then dumped his body overboard.
Abbas initially won a deal calling for him and his men to be flown from Egypt to safe haven in Tunisia. But Col. Oliver North, an aide to then-President Ronald Reagan, ordered U.S. Navy fighter jets to scramble the EgyptAir flight, and Abbas was forced to land at an airport in Sicily.
A standoff between Italian and U.S. soldiers ensued, with both sides demanding custody of the terrorists. Reagan and then-Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi negotiated a deal in which Italy would try the PLF members.
Two days later, however, Italy said it lacked sufficient evidence to hold Abbas and -- arguing that he also held an Iraqi diplomatic passport -- let him go. He quickly fled the country.
Abbas reportedly spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s living in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. He moved to Iraq in 1994, one of several terrorist leaders -- including the infamous Abu Nidal -- for whom Saddam Hussein provided asylum.
After Baghdad fell last week, Abbas traveled to the northern city of Mosul and on to the Syrian border, but Syrian authorities turned him away, the AP reported.
Someone tipped off U.S. officials to Abbas' whereabouts, and U.S. forces were led to a safe house on the Tigris River south of Baghdad. Special Forces raided the house. Abbas had fled, but they found Lebanese and Yemeni passports, thousands of dollars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and some documents.
Abbas later returned to the city and was captured along with several others.
The White House said it would review the situation, while U.S. military officials signaled they were likely to interrogate Abbas about terrorism.
"Justice will be served," Marine Maj. Brad Bartelt, a Central Command spokesman, told the AP.