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Israel Welcomes Capture of Abu Abbas; Palestinians Urge He be Freed - 2003-04-16

The Palestinian Authority has called for the United States to free fugitive PLO guerrilla leader Abu Abbas, who was captured by U.S. Special Forces in Baghdad late Monday. But the Israeli government says Abu Abbas is a terrorist wanted by Italy and should be put on trial.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner says Israel is delighted that Abu Abbas has been captured. Mr. Pazner says the Palestinian is a terrorist and should be prosecuted for crimes and murders he committed in the past.

But Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Eerekat called for the United States to release Abu Abbas, saying his detention violates the U.S.-backed Middle East peace accord signed in Washington in 1995, which grants amnesty to PLO officials for acts committed prior to 1993.

Abu Abbas, whose real name is Mohammed Abbas, was captured late Monday by American troops in Baghdad. The notorious guerrilla leader was involved in a number of terrorist operations in the past, most notably as mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro in the eastern Mediterranean. During the operation, hundreds of passengers were taken hostage, and militants shot and killed disabled American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and pushed him overboard in his wheelchair.

After the attack Abu Abbas was convicted in absentia by an Italian court and sentenced to life in prison in 1986.

Mohammed Abbas was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria after his parents had fled their home near Haifa, when the state of Israel was created. He attended Damascus University and became involved in student politics and the Palestinian movement in exile. Frustrated by what he felt was a lack of militancy among some of the existing Palestinian factions, in 1976 he formed his own group, the Palestine Liberation Front.

His group launched several attacks against Israel, including a 1981 attempt to infiltrate into northern Israel from neighboring Lebanon with the use of motorized gliders. In 1990 Palestine Liberation Front militants tried to launch an attack on a beach in southern Israel, but were intercepted by the Israeli Navy.

Years after the Achille Lauro hijacking, Abu Abbas apologized on several occasions for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, calling it a mistake. Israel concluded that he had renounced violence and allowed him to return to the Gaza Strip. The United States also dropped its arrest warrant for him several years ago.

More recently, however, Israel accused Abu Abbas of training Palestinian militants in Iraq and of funneling money from Saddam Hussein's regime to the families of suicide bombers in the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Klinghoffer's family says he has joked about the killing, and never really expressed remorse. The family wants him re-tried in the United States.

American officials say the capture of Abu Abbas in Baghdad proves Saddam Hussein's link to terrorist organizations that could pose a threat to America.

Neither Abu Abbas nor his PLF group has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist organization, which American officials blame for the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States.

A spokesman for the PLF in Gaza, Bassam Darweesh, is quoted as saying the Unites States is rushing to fulfill Israeli demands to pursue Palestinian political leaders. He said it is an attempt to harm the Palestinian cause.