A Hijack on the High Seas - Part Two Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Hijack on the High Seas - Part Two

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In October 1985, the cruise liner Achille Lauro was hijacked in the Mediterranean by a group of armed Palestinians. The hijacking incident, which involved the murder of American tourist Leon Klinghoffer, triggered an international incident involving Italy, Egypt, the USA and various other countries. The first part of this entry can be read here - which gives an account of the events leading up to the situation in this entry.

The Death of Klinghoffer

The Italian Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, later claimed that he only found out about the death of Klinghoffer early on Wednesday evening, when he spoke to the captain of the Achille Lauro while it was anchored some 15 miles off Port Said, Egypt. And even then, Craxi said, the captain wasn't absolutely certain about it. But later on Wednesday evening the captain himself appeared on Italian television and confirmed that he knew about the death of Klinghoffer immediately after it had occurred, on Tuesday, off the coast of Tartus. He said the hijackers had come to him immediately after the killing to tell him about it. He saw that their shoes and clothes were still spattered with blood. The captain said the hijackers had held a gun to his head and told him that he and his crew would be killed unless he told the Egyptian authorities that everyone was safe. Both the American officials and the Italian newspapers felt that Craxi's account of events was questionable. The Italian Foreign Ministry had spoken to the captain that Wednesday afternoon, so Craxi would have had no reason to contact the captain again - unless he already knew that the killing had taken place. There were other inconsistencies, too.

Washington officials had strong suspicions that Craxi already knew about the death of Klinghoffer before he spoke to the captain, and that he was hiding this fact from them. This of course only served to heighten the tension and distrust between the US and Italian governments.

The reaction in the USA was initially one of unhappiness at the negotiated release of the ship, and then outrage as news came through of the death of Klinghoffer. The US government reaffirmed its determination to bring the hijackers to justice, that there must be no safe haven for terrorists, and that the Egyptian government should not release them or make any concessions to them. The whole thing seemed to be a stitch-up, with the Italians leaning on Arafat to lean on the Egyptians. So the Americans now leaned on Craxi to get the hijackers extradited from Egypt.

The Hijackers Leave Egypt

The Egyptians had a problem. They wanted to get rid of the hijackers sure enough, so they could wash their hands of the whole affair. But the USA wanted the hijackers extradited to Italy or the USA, while Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat was insisting that if they were Palestinians they must be handed over to him. Egypt's President Mubarak then stated that the hijackers had already left Egypt, destination unknown but possibly Tunis, claiming that they had been allowed to leave before the news came through of the death of Klinghoffer.

More intelligence was received, which seemed to confirm that the hijackers were members of the pro-PLO faction of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), and that PLO member Mohammed 'Abul' Abbas had masterminded the bungled terrorist operation that resulted in the hijacking. Then his faction of the PLF issued a statement claiming responsibility for the incident and actually apologising for it. They said they had not intended to cause any embarrassment to friendly states such as Egypt and Italy, but were just trying to get a group of their people to Ashdod. It was only because the weapons being carried by the Palestinians were accidentally discovered by a member of the ship's crew that, in a state of panic and confusion, they hijacked the ship. This claim seemed to be supported by statements made by the passengers and crew, and fitted in with the American intelligence assessments.

The Americans were trying to get confirmation of Mubarak's statement that the hijackers had left Egypt, when they received intelligence from the Israelis that the group was still at an airbase outside Cairo. By means of electronic surveillance the Americans were able to listen in to Mubarak's conversations from his Cairo office, which confirmed the Israeli intelligence reports. The Egyptians were planning to fly the hijackers out on a special flight to Algiers, and the Americans even got hold of the aircraft's identification details (it was an EgyptAir Boeing 737) and a preliminary flight plan. The Americans decided to intercept the aircraft and force it to land at the NATO air base in Sicily. There was also a contingency plan: Israeli jets would be scrambled and ready to assist should it prove necessary to escort the Egyptian Boeing to an Israeli military airfield.

Detailed plans for the interception were worked out and duly approved by US President Reagan, who was given details of the rules of engagement and assessments of the risk of casualties. Four F14 fighter planes took off from a US carrier in the eastern Mediterranean, supported by communications and electronic reconnaissance planes and tanker planes for mid-air refuelling. The F14s flew around the region under cover of darkness, observing complete radio silence. After some time they located the EgyptAir flight, got close to it and established radio contact. The Egyptian pilot immediately agreed to allow his aircraft to be escorted to Sigonella, the NATO air base in Sicily.

The US Blunder

But landing the aircraft in Sicily was a blunder on the part of the Americans. For one thing, the Achille Lauro was Italian-registered, making it the Italians' responsibility, and even though Klinghoffer was an American, his death took place on Italian territory. Also, under the Italian Constitution its law officers have to act on information - they have no discretion in the matter - so once the aircraft landed on Italian soil they had no choice but to act on the case. And the whole episode of the Americans virtually forcing down the EgyptAir plane in Sicily did nothing to help the existing tension and bad feeling between the Italian and American authorities.

The Italian military had picked up the US Air Force activity on their radar at the time of the interception, but didn't realise what was actually going on until they were informed by the US commander some time later. The Italians believed the USA had deliberately delayed telling them for as long as possible, so as to present them with a fait accompli. They also felt that the USA were holding out on them regarding their plans for the hijackers on board the plane. The Americans actually intended to seize the hijackers and fly them to the USA. To get the hijackers off the plane and deal with any possible resistance they sent a group of some 50 special operatives to the Sicilian air base. They believed that the Egyptians would have disarmed the four hijackers and that, though the Egyptians might resist handing them over, they were unlikely to try to use force against US personnel to prevent a handover.

They also believed that the Italians wouldn't really object, because they would be quite happy for the USA to take these people off their hands. The USA calculated that if they requested the Italians to hand the hijackers over, the Italians would be forced to protest, if only because of national pride. But they thought Craxi might quietly allow the Americans to take the prisoners, only to then protest in outrage at such US violation of Italian sovereignty. The only way for the USA to find out about this for sure was for them to send in the Delta Force (the secret, specialised, elite hostage rescue team flown in from North Carolina) and see what the Italians did.

The Italian traffic controllers at the air base refused permission for the planes to land, even though they were told that the civilian airliner was running out of fuel and that their own Ministry of Defence had already granted permission. The controllers refused to give the necessary approach vectors, so the US escort craft attempted to guide the EgyptAir plane in without them. Its first approach was too low and it was warned to abandon the approach and circle round for another attempt. This was successful, but the Italians were surprised and outraged to find that the Egyptian plane was accompanied not by the escorts that the US had told them about but by two US troop transport aircraft.


As soon as they had landed, more than 50 US troops rushed to surround the Egyptian plane. But they were confronted by a similar sized group of Italian soldiers and Carabinieri (Italian police), who also surrounded the Egyptian plane. The US troops moved fuel trucks in to block any possible movement of the Egyptian plane. The Italian troops moved heavy machinery in to block the US troop planes and a US Air Force transport that was waiting to pick up the hijackers. In the ensuing stand-off more than 100 heavily-armed US and Italian troops stood facing each other while their top brass engaged in a long shouting match. It was stalemate.

A torrent of telephone calls ensued. The general situation was that the Americans wanted to take custody of the hijackers, who had killed an American citizen. The Italians retorted that the hijackers, who were now on Italian soil, had committed a crime on an Italian ship and were under Italian jurisdiction. The phone calls escalated to Presidential level, with Reagan demanding that Craxi release the men to the US authorities, while Craxi stood firm. Reagan finally accepted Craxi's position but sought assurances that the Italians would seize and prosecute the hijackers. He stated that the USA would seek their extradition under existing treaties. But there was confusion and misunderstanding about who exactly would be prosecuted and whether this included Abbas and his colleague.

Craxi tried to put it about that the capture of the hijackers was as a result of some wide-ranging process of co-operation between Italy, the USA, Egypt and the PLO. Reagan wanted the world to know that the USA alone had caught the hijackers, as a message to terrorists everywhere that they might run but they couldn't hide. The New York Daily News ran a banner headline: 'We Bag the Bums'. But they spoke too soon.

The Italian press complained loudly about the unilateral arrogance of the American military forces. But the Italians had a problem: the hijackers were still on board an Egyptian plane and the extent of Egyptian co-operation remained in question. The Italian base commander boarded the plane with an Egyptian diplomat and, after about two hours of negotiations, the Italians managed to remove the four hijackers and put them in a military jail at the airbase. Abbas and his colleague, Hassan, remained on the plane, as did about a dozen armed Egyptian soldiers.

The Story Continues

  • Part Three - Political and legal wrangling abound as the hijackers are put on trial, wanted men escape to a safe haven, and the Italian government collapses.

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