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Hijacking Plotter Dies in U.S. Custody

Abul Abbas, Achille Lauro mastermind, apparently succumbed to natural causes, the military says. He was being held in Iraq.

March 10, 2004|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Abul Abbas, the Palestinian mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, died while in U.S. military custody in Iraq, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Abbas had been held by the U.S. military since he was captured last April in Baghdad.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Abbas died Monday, apparently of natural causes.

"Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful," Whitman said.

Abbas, believed to have been 56, had a history of heart disease, Whitman said. An autopsy is planned.

Pentagon officials would not say where in Iraq Abbas had been held, but one official said he received "appropriate medical treatment" while in custody.

Abbas was captured when Marines swarmed a suspected training camp on the outskirts of Baghdad. It is not known whether Abbas had a role in the camp, which at the time was described as a facility operated by the Palestine Liberation Front, a splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Abbas headed the PLF in 1985, when several of its members commandeered the Achille Lauro, an Italian ship that was leaving Egypt on its way to Israel, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians held by Israel. After they were denied permission to dock in Syria, the guerrillas shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled, 69-year-old American Jew. They dumped Klinghoffer overboard.

After negotiations, the hijackers agreed to drop their demands and leave the ship in exchange for passage to Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner. That plane was forced by U.S. Navy fighters to land in Sicily, where four hijackers and Abbas were arrested by Italian authorities.

The Italians concluded that they lacked sufficient evidence to hold Abbas and released him. Since then, he had been sentenced in absentia to five life terms in Italy.

After Abbas' capture last year, U.S. officials weighed action against him, including returning him to Italy or bringing him to the United States. Officials would not say Tuesday whether legal action had been taken against Abbas or whether he had been interrogated.

Wasil Abu Yousef, head of the PLF for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, reacted angrily Tuesday when told that the Pentagon had confirmed Abbas' death. He said the U.S. government should be held responsible for keeping Abbas in custody for nearly a year without filing charges and called for an inquiry into his cause of death.

U.S. intelligence officials said last year that they doubted that Abbas remained an active militant, and Abbas himself denounced the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the mid-1990s, Abbas apologized for the death of Klinghoffer, saying the killing was part of a botched "military" operation. "The killing of the passenger was a mistake.... We are sorry," he said.

The apology was never accepted by the slain man's family, who reviled him as a "murderous terrorist."

Staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem and Jon Marino in Washington contributed to this report.

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