- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2003

GAZA, April 16 (UPI) — Palestinian Authority officials on Wednesday called on the United States to immediately free Mohamed Abbas, chief of the Palestinian Liberation Front who led the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and was arrested late Monday by U.S. forces outside Baghdad.

The Italians, meanwhile, asked for his extradition. The Achille Lauro was an Italian ship and Abbas was convicted in absentia for his role in its hijacking that killed a Jewish-American man.

Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told reporters that arresting the PLF leader, often called Abu el-Abbas or Abu Abbas, in Iraq was "a violation of the peace accords signed in Washington between Israel and the Palestinians in 1995."

"The Palestinian leadership demands that the United States administration release as soon as possible Abu el-Abbas, because the U.S. doesn't have the right to arrest and detain him," he said.

The Achille Lauro hijacking is remembered for the killing of wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, 69, who was vacationing with his wife, Lisa. After separating the Jewish passengers and issuing a demand for the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners, the four PLF militants aboard shot Klinghoffer and pushed him overboard.

Omer Shebli, Abbas' deputy who is based in Gaza, told United Press International the PLF strongly condemns the arrest and also called for his immediate release.

"For us, Abu el-Abbas' case had been closed down 14 years ago through the dialogues held in Tunis between Palestine Liberation Organization and the United States," said Shebli.

He said that the peace agreements signed between Israel and the PLO in 1995 says members of the Palestinian group must not be detained or tried for crimes committed before the peace agreement had been signed.

Under the agreement, which followed the 1993 Oslo peace accords, Abbas was able to travel to and from the Palestinian territories with impunity from Israel. He would face arrest in Italy, where his conviction carried several life sentences.

Shebli noted that Abu Abbas attended the February meeting in Egypt of various Palestinian political groups to discuss halting attacks against Israeli civilians. The PLF deputy said Egyptian authorities told Abbas that he should leave Cairo as soon as possible because Egyptian intelligence had information the United States was intending to arrest him if he stayed there.

The U.S. Justice Department's warrant for Abbas has expired, having been dropped following Italy's conviction, but Italy's justice minister Wednesday said his country had continued the hunt for him.

"We have asked in recent months for the extradition of Abu Abbas from the governments of Egypt and Jordan, where we had news of his presence," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Roberto Castelli as saying. Castelli did note a legal knot surrounded Abbas' fate, as he was arrested in Iraq, was now with U.S. authorities but is wanted by the Italians.

Luigi Marconi, a parliamentarian from the National Alliance, a member of Italy's ruling coalition, echoed the justice minister's comments. "We understand that deciding Abbas' fate is a difficult situation for the United States, but we feel very strongly that he should be transferred to Italy because Italy is the only country that has already tried him and found him guilty," he said on Italian television Wednesday night.

Abbas' wife, speaking to the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, said her husband should be freed as "he is not a party to this war (in Iraq) at all." Lisa Klinghoffer, daughter of the Achilles Lauro victim, said in an interview with the American network NBC that the family wanted him extradited and tried in the United States — a possibility that is currently remote.

Abbas, who is believed to be in his mid-50s, has spent much of the last 17 years in Iraq. He has traveled in the Middle East and stayed for some time in Gaza with the permission of the Israelis.

The PLF chief was not aboard the Achille Lauro when its hijackers took control of the ship and its 400 passengers on Oct. 7, 1985. He joined them later however when the hijackers abandoned the ship and were granted passage on an Egyptian airplane. American F-16 fighters forced the plane to divert from Tunisia, the PLF base at the time, to Sicily. Italian authorities at the time let him go, however, citing lack of evidence and an Iraqi diplomatic passport Abbas reportedly held. Three other hijackers were detained for trial.

After the Oslo peace accord and other interim agreements were signed between Israel and the Palestinians, Abbas called the hijack a mistake and even apologized for it. The PLF's mission had been to use the ship as transportation to Israel for an attack on a naval base, he said.

Abbas was born in Haifa and then moved to Syria after his family fled from their home following the creation of the state of Israel, of which Haifa became part. He studied Arabic literature and English at Damascus University.

In 1965 he joined the Palestinian militant movement that would become the PLF, after it split off from the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine-General Command in 1977. After it splintered over the years, Abbas retained control of the main wing supporting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

After Baghdad fell to U.S. forces on April 9, Abbas reportedly tried to flee to Syria but was turned away at the Syrian border. U.S. Special Forces, acting on intelligence, captured him Monday night along with several followers.

"This mission success highlights the U.S. and our coalition partners' commitment to defeating terrorism worldwide," U.S. Central Command said in a statement released late Tuesday. "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."

Last October, President George W. Bush listed Abbas among the reasons why Iraq was a threat to the world.

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

Last summer, Abu Nidal, another renowned Palestinian terrorist, was found dead in Baghdad. The Iraqi government said his death was a suicide, but at the time, Vice President Cheney said he believed Abu Nidal was killed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's secret police.

(With reporting by Eric Lyman in Rome.)


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