October 10,1985: Achille Lauro hijacking ends

October 10: General Interest
1985: Achille Lauro hijacking ends

The
hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro reaches a dramatic climax
when U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercept an Egyptian airliner attempting to fly
the Palestinian hijackers to freedom and force the jet to land at a NATO base in
Sigonella, Sicily. American and Italian troops surrounded the plane, and the
terrorists were taken into Italian custody.

On October 7, four heavily
armed Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea
off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. Some 320 crewmembers and 80 passengers, were
taken hostage. Hundreds of other passengers had disembarked the cruise ship
earlier that day to visit Cairo and tour the Egyptian pyramids. Identifying
themselves as members of the Palestine Liberation Front–a Palestinian splinter
group–the gunmen demanded the release of 50 Palestinian militants imprisoned in
Israel. If their demands were not met, they threatened to blow up the ship and
kill the 11 Americans on board. The next morning, they also threatened to kill
the British passengers.

The Achille Lauro traveled to the Syrian port of
Tartus, where the terrorists demanded negotiations on October 8. Syria refused
to permit the ship to anchor in its waters, which prompted more threats from the
hijackers. That afternoon, they shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old
Jewish-American who was confined to a wheelchair as the result of a stroke. His
body was then pushed overboard in the wheelchair.

Yasir Arafat’s
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) condemned the hijacking, and PLO
officials joined with Egyptian authorities in attempting to resolve the crisis.
On the recommendation of the negotiators, the cruise ship traveled to Port Said.
On October 9, the hijackers surrendered to Egyptian authorities and freed the
hostages in exchange for a pledge of safe passage to an undisclosed destination.

The next day–October 10–the four hijackers boarded an EgyptAir Boeing
737 airliner, along with Mohammed Abbas, a member of the Palestine Liberation
Front who had participated in the negotiations; a PLO official; and several
Egyptians. The 737 took off from Cairo at 4:15 p.m. EST and headed for Tunisia.
President Ronald Reagan gave his final order approving the plan to intercept the
aircraft, and at 5:30 p.m. EST, F-14 Tomcat fighters located the airliner 80
miles south of Crete. Without announcing themselves, the F-14s trailed the
airliner as it sought and was denied permission to land at Tunis. After a
request to land at the Athens airport was likewise refused, the F-14s turned on
their lights and flew wing-to-wing with the airliner. The aircraft was ordered
to land at a NATO air base in Sicily, and the pilot complied, touching down at
6:45 p.m. The hijackers were arrested soon after. Abbas and the other
Palestinian were released, prompting criticism from the United States, which
wanted to investigate their possible involvement in the hijacking.

On
July 10, 1986, an Italian court later convicted three of the terrorists and
sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 15 to 30 years. Three others,
including Mohammed Abbas, were convicted in absentia for masterminding the
hijacking and sentenced to life in prison. They received harsher penalties
because, unlike the hijackers, who the court found were acting for “patriotic
motives,” Abbas and the others conceived the hijacking as a “selfish political
act” designed “to weaken the leadership of Yasir Arafat.” The fourth hijacker
was a minor who was tried and convicted separately.

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