Italy wants extradition of captured militant

Palestinian Abul Abbas was captured Monday by U.S. forces in Baghdad

War in Iraq


ROME - Italy said yesterday that it will seek the extradition of the Palestinian militant Abul Abbas, who was captured by U.S. forces in Baghdad this week, 18 years after he led a terrorist group that killed an American on a hijacked Italian cruise ship.

Italian courts sentenced Abbas in absentia to multiple life terms a year after he masterminded the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise liner, which carried hundreds of passengers, including Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old, wheelchair-using American who was shot in the head and thrown overboard.

Abbas, 54, had evaded capture and never went to prison.

That changed Monday night when a raid by U.S. Special Forces on the southern outskirts of Baghdad left the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front faction in the 1980s and 1990s in U.S. military custody.

Suddenly, after years of living in Baghdad, apparently to hide from justice for old crimes, Abbas, whose real name is Muhammad Abbas, became the object of a tug of war between the Italian government, which wants him in its courts, and the Palestinian Authority, which demanded his release.

U.S. trial sought

The United States has not indicated where Abbas will be taken. The Klinghoffer family has called for a trial in the United States. Italy's Justice Ministry acknowledged that the murky situation in Iraq complicated its extradition efforts and said it was awaiting indications from Washington.

Italy's justice minister, Roberto Castelli, made the case for extradition yesterday, saying Italy had been trying to find and extradite Abbas ever since the hijacking and that in the past several months it had approached Egypt and Jordan seeking his extradition "after receiving information that he might be in those countries."

"Now we know he has been captured in Iraq, but that he's in the hands of American authorities," Castelli said. "We will have to clarify some legal questions as to whom to ask for the extradition, which we'll do as soon as possible."

The Palestinian Authority has said the United States has no right to hold Abbas, let alone authority to extradite him to Italy.

Release demanded

They demand his release on grounds that his detention violates a U.S.-backed Middle East peace deal stating that members of the Palestine Liberation Organization must not be detained or tried in cases predating the Oslo Accords of 1993.

"For now, the question doesn't concern Italy," Nemer Hammad, the General Palestinian Delegation's ambassador to Italy, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"We're asking the Americans to release Abul Abbas," he said, adding that Europe's support of a 1995 agreement that says members of the Palestine Liberation Organization may not be detained or tried for matters they committed before the Oslo peace accords should force Italy to drop its extradition request.

"It was decided that we are at the beginning of a new era," Hammad said. "One cannot suddenly now reconsider what happened during a certain period. It's just opening up old stories."

Some officials in Washington have countered that the 1995 interim agreement concerns arrangements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority for the detention and prosecution of certain people, and does not apply to the legal status of people detained in a third country.

Though Abbas has long renounced violence and Israel has allowed him to travel to Gaza, the United States said his presence in Iraq sheds light on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's links to international terrorism, one of President Bush's main justifications for the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

The U.S. Central Command said this week that the capture of Abbas "removes a portion of the terror network supported by Iraq and represents yet another victory in the global war on terrorism."

That sentiment appeared to be supported by the Italian government, which has been a strong political supporter of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and which voted Tuesday to send up to 3,000 troops to keep order in Iraq and assist in humanitarian aid.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, attending a European Union summit in Athens, Greece, said Abbas' presence in Iraq was "no coincidence."

Italy and the United States have not always agreed on Abbas. The Italian government in power at the time of the cruise ship attack permitted his escape.

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