The Bush administration said Tuesday it is disappointed that Germany has released a Lebanese member of Hezbollah, who had been given life in prison for his role in the 1985 hijacking of a U.S. jetliner. The State Department says the United States will make every effort to bring the man to trial for the murder of a U.S. navy diver killed in the hijack incident.
The 1985 hijacking of the TWA jetliner and the ensuing two-week hostage drama was one of the most spectacular terrorist incidents of that time.
And the United States is making clear it has a long memory about the incident, which included the killing by the hijackers of 23-year-old U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem.
The hijacker, quietly released by Germany late last week, was Mohammed Ali Hamadi, once of several Hezbollah members involved in the incident. He was arrested by German authorities at the Frankfurt airport in 1987 and put on trial and given a life prison term for the hijacking two years later.
German officials said he was released and returned to Lebanon last week after he had served his sentence, although nominal life prison terms in Germany usually run as long as 25 years.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States had sought Hamadi's extradition at the time of his arrest, and is disappointed now that he has been released before the end of his full sentence:
"We were certainly disappointed at the time that we didn't get our hands on him then," said Sean McCormack. "And we are disappointed now that he has been released before the end of his full sentence. But as I said, that's a matter of German law. As a matter of policy now in our view with what happens going forward, as I said, we're going to make every effort to see that he stands trial in the United States for what he did."
Mr. McCormack said U.S. officials have been in touch with Lebanese authorities about the status of Hamadi, though the issue is complicated by the lack of an extradition treaty between the United States and Lebanon.
He would not discuss whether the United States might seek the "rendition" of Hamadi outside of normal extradition channels, a controversial practice that has been used against terrorist suspects in recent years.
News reports say Germany turned down the United States' initial extradition request for Hamadi in 1987 because he might have faced the death penalty in a U.S. court.
Under German law, he could not have been extradited now for crimes for which he had already been convicted and punished, namely murder, air piracy and possession of explosives.
Spokesman McCormack said U.S. legal experts believe he still can be tried for the killing of Mr. Stethem, who was shot by the hijackers and his body thrown from the plane during a stop in Beirut.
The TWA plane, hijacked on a flight from Athens to Rome with 153 people on board, made several stops in the Middle East before the episode ended after two weeks when Israel released 31 Shiite Muslim prisoners.
Israel and the United States insisted at the time that the release was not connected to the hijacking.
Under questioning, Spokesman McCormack said the United States is unaware of any connection between Germany's release of Hamadi last Thursday and the release shortly thereafter of a German woman archeologist, Susanne Osthoff, who had been held hostage for three weeks in Iraq.
The German Foreign Ministry also denied any connection between the two cases.