- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal died in Baghdad from multiple gunshot wounds, but it was not clear whether he had been killed by a rival or slain by his Iraqi patrons or whether he had taken his own life, Palestinian officials said yesterday.

The schoolteacher-turned-terror mastermind, once branded the world's most dangerous terrorist by the U.S. State Department, struck from Paris to Pakistan over more than two decades.

His ruthless campaign targeted civilians and eliminated some of the closest associates of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

His most notorious but not most lethal attacks were twin assaults on the Israeli airline El Al's ticket counters in Rome and Vienna, Austria, on Dec. 27, 1985. Eighteen persons were killed and 120 wounded.

Abu Nidal, 65, a renegade who opposed any negotiations with Israel, was found dead in his apartment in the Iraqi capital three days ago, said two senior Palestinian officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

They said they believed that Abu Nidal committed suicide but did not explain how he could have shot himself several times. The Al-Ayyam newspaper, close to Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority, reported yesterday that Abu Nidal was found shot in the head in his apartment by Iraqi forces who had come to arrest him.

Another Palestinian official said he would not be surprised if a Palestinian had killed Abu Nidal in revenge for assassinations of senior Palestinian figures.

[State Department spokesman Philip Reeker called Abu Nidal a "craven and despicable terrorist" and said his presence in Baghdad was further proof of the nature of Saddam Hussein's regime.

["Iraq's record of providing support, safe haven, training, logistical assistance and financial aid to terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization is why Iraq is listed as a state supporter of terrorism," Mr. Reeker said. U.S. officials believe Abu Nidal has been in the Iraqi capital since 1998.]

The shooting death left many questions unanswered. Abu Nidal had collected many enemies, but he had also been ill reportedly with heart disease and bone cancer and that may have led him to commit suicide.

[In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said American spy agencies have not been able to confirm reports of Abu Nidal's death. The official said that Abu Nidal's health woes included diabetes, poor circulation and a drinking problem.]

In Baghdad, the deputy Palestinian ambassador, Nejah Abdul-Rahman, said he had no information regarding what he described as "rumors" of Abu Nidal's death.

The spokesman for Abu Nidal's group, Ghanem Saleh, speaking in Lebanon, said he heard the report in the media and had no comment.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, Abu Nidal's brother said he had no information to indicate that his brother had died in Baghdad but added that he had not heard from him in 38 years.

Mohammed al-Banna, a fruit and vegetable merchant, said it was not the first time rumors have circulated concerning the death of his brother, whose real name was Sabri al-Banna. The title Abu Nidal means "Father of Struggle."

The State Department once called Abu Nidal's group "the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence."

But Jordanian political analyst Bilal al-Tal said yesterday that Abu Nidal's "influence had diminished" in recent years. Since 1995, Nidal had confined himself to Baghdad with a few close men.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry refused to comment on reports of Abu Nidal's death, saying it was an internal Palestinian matter.

Reports of Abu Nidal's death come at a time when the Bush administration is considering military action to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who has been accused of sheltering terrorists.

Although Abu Nidal began his activities in the Palestine Liberation Organization, he split from the group in the mid-1970s, saying Mr. Arafat had not taken a radical enough line against Israel. Abu Nidal then focused on Mr. Arafat, killing many of his confidants.

The radical faction that Abu Nidal formed which went by the name Fatah-Revolutionary Council killed at least 275 persons and wounded hundreds more in dozens of attacks.

As leading terrorists in the Middle East over the past 30 years, Abu Nidal's followers bombed American airliners, mowed down travelers in airports, machine-gunned sidewalk cafes and synagogues, and blew up hotels.

Abu Nidal masterminded the killings of both Jews and fellow Palestinians who opposed his idea that the Jewish state should be wiped off the map. He moved from base to base to avoid capture and switched backers from Iraq to Syria to Libya over the years, frequently using disguises, reportedly even plastic surgery.

Abu Nidal was born in Jaffa in 1937, when the area was part of British-governed Palestine. His family later moved to Nablus, after which he left to organize opposition to the establishment of Israel.

The bloodiest attack associated with Abu Nidal came Oct. 8, 1974, when his group planted a bomb on a TWA airliner flying from Israel to Greece. The plane blew up over the Aegean Sea, killing all 88 persons aboard.

In 1982, Abu Nidal gunmen shot and wounded Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to London, who was paralyzed from the neck down. Israel blamed Mr. Arafat's PLO and began a massive invasion of Lebanon, driving Mr. Arafat and his forces out of the country.

Staff writers Bill Gertz and David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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