Sunday, October 09, 2005
Achille Lauro Hijackers Intercepted, October 10, 1985
Today in 1985, two US Navy F-14 Tomcats from the USS Saratoga intercepted an Egyptian 737 carrying the terrorists responsible for the Achille Lauro hijacking. The mid-air confrontation demonstrated American resolve in bringing terrorists to justice. It also brought two staunch allies to diplomatic “blows” over which nation had the right to hold and try the Palestinians.
What would become known as the Achille Lauro incident began on October 7th, when Palestinian terrorists took control of the Italian cruise ship. There were over 400 passengers and crew aboard of various nationalities. The hijackers immediately demanded the release of fifty members of Palestinian Liberation Front who were being held in Israeli prisons. The Israelis do not make deals with terrorists, so the exchange was refused. In Washington, officials of the Reagan administration contacted officials in every nation bordering the Mediterranean and asked them to deny the ship entry to their ports. British, Italian and American special forces units gathered at the Royal Air Force base in Cyprus to prepare to wrest control of the ship from the terrorists.
Before any covert military action could be taken, the terrorists steered the ship for Port Said in Egypt, where they were given permission to dock. They were prepared to make a deal in which they would surrender if they were allowed to escape prosecution and were turned over the PLO. Yassar Arafat, who had undoubtedly given his blessing to the hijacking, turned into the concerned peacemaker and helped negotiate the deal.
During this time, the US learned that the terrorists had executed an American while onboard the Achille Lauro. The man was named Leon Klinghoffer, and he was confined to a wheelchair. He was also Jewish. He had been killed in cold blood not because of anything he had done, but because of where he was born and because of the faith he professed. The Achille Lauro incident suddenly became more than just an act of piracy.
On October 10th, the Egyptian government granted the hijackers passage on an EgyptAir 737 charter plane bound for Tunis. Meanwhile, President Reagan was aboard Air Force One when word arrived that the terrorists would soon be arriving in North Africa. He ordered the USS Saratoga and her air wing, then patrolling the Adriatic Sea, to find the EgyptAir flight and force it to land at Sigonella, Sicily.
The F-14 pilots did their job. The airspace over the Mediterranean is a crowded place, meaning that the pilots and their Radar Intercept Officers had to visually scan many 737s. When they approached the EgyptAir plane and knew they had found their mark, they flew along the cockpit and turned on their running lights. To say the Egyptian pilots were unnerved by the sight of two warplanes mere yards away is an understatement. Without complaint, they headed for Sicily.
Once the plane landed, the Italian government demanded the right to try the terrorists in Italy, since the ship was of Italian registry. Despite calls from President Reagan, the Italian Prime Minister would not change his mind. With Italian troops encircling the American troops who encircled the 737, the situation was quickly coming to a head. The US backed down and the hijackers remained in Italian hands.
The fate of the four terrorists convicted of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro is as follows (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Bassam al-Asker was granted parole in 1991. He died on February 21, 2004.
Ahmad Marrouf al-Assadi disappeared in 1991 while on parole.
Youssef al Molqi was sentenced to 30 years, left the Rebibbia prison in Rome on February 16, 1996, on a 12 day furlough, and fled to Spain, where he was recaptured and extradited back to Italy.
Abu Abbas left the jurisdiction of Italy and was convicted in absentia. In 1996, he made an apology for the hijacking and murder, and advocated peace talks between Palestininans and Israel; the apology was rejected by the United States government and Klinghoffer's family, who insisted he be brought to justice. Abbas was captured in Iraq in 2003 by the U.S. military during its 2003 invasion of Iraq. He died in custody March 8, 2004.