Thursday 11 March 2004

The life and unexplained death of a Palestinian militant

Mohamed Aboul Abbas, the 'Achille Lauro' planner, said he never intended passengers to be held hostage or anyone to be killed, and apologised for it. The US and Israel allowed him back to Gaza. So why was he in a US prison in Iraq?

by Robert Fisk

click here to visit his website When 55-year-old Mohamed Aboul Abbas died mysteriously in a US prison camp in Iraq on Tuesday, nobody bothered to call his family.

His American captors had given no indication to the International Red Cross that he had been unwell and his wife Reem first heard that he was dead when she watched an Arab television news show.

Yet in his last letter to his family, written just seven weeks ago and shown to The Independent in Baghdad yesterday, the Palestinian militant wrote that, "I am in good form and in good health", adding that he hoped to be freed soon. So what happened to Mohamed Aboul Abbas?

Although a prominent colleague of Yasser Arafat for more than three decades, the world will forever link his name with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, when members of his small "Palestine Liberation Front" commandeered the vessel in the Mediterranean and, in a cruel killing that was to cause international outrage, shot dead Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American Jew in a wheelchair, and tipped his corpse into the sea.

The other passengers were eventually released in Egypt after Aboul Abbas negotiated with the authorities in Cairo to allow the hijackers to go free.

In vain did he point out that the hijackers' plan was to stow away on the Italian liner - not harm the passengers - then storm ashore in Israel when the ship made port at Haifa. It was only their discovery by a crew member that prompted them to take over the vessel. "The media didn't tell the world that I saved 600 passengers, only that a disabled man was killed," he was to complain later.

Yet, in a newspaper interview, he was also reported to have said that Mr Klinghoffer "was handicapped but he was inciting and provoking the other passengers. So the decision was made to kill him".

But within 10 years, the Israelis themselves would allow Aboul Abbas, now a member of the Palestine National Council, to enter the occupied territories to participate in elections in the Gaza Strip. He even visited his old family home in Haifa in Israel.

He supported Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements and favoured the annulment of the anti-Israeli articles in the PLO's charter. Like so many of Mr Arafat's colleagues, he had undergone that mystical Middle East transformation from "super-terrorist" to peacenik. So why was he ever incarcerated in the harsh confines of America's airport prison camp outside Baghdad? He was never charged with any crime, never offered a lawyer, never allowed direct contact with his wife and family, allowed to communicate with the outside world only via the Red Cross. They were the ones who telephoned his wife Reem in Beirut more than 24 hours ago to tell her that her husband was dead.

"I know nothing about this, nothing," she wailed down the telephone to The Independent from Beirut yesterday. "How did he die? Why were we told nothing? When I first heard this terrible news on television I thought it had to be a rumour; this happens a lot out here. But then the Red Cross called at midnight and told me it was true." Mohamed Aboul Abbas is the most prominent prisoner to die in US custody in Iraq ,and joins a growing list of unexplained deaths among the 15,000 Iraqis and Palestinians held by US military forces. The occupation authorities in Iraq would only say yesterday that they were to hold a post-mortem examination on Aboul Abbas's remains.

The "Palestinian Liberation Front" has long had offices in Baghdad, along with Mr Arafat's PLO. The head of the PLF's "political bureau", Mohamed Sobhi, said yesterday that Mohamed Aboul Abbas's arrest by US troops on 14 April last year had "no reason in law other than the need of the American soldiers at that time to look for false victories". He added: "We all knew that Aboul Abbas had been to Palestine in 1995 for the PNC elections in Gaza and that the United States and Israel both allowed this. After that, he travelled to Palestinian areas and to other Arab states many times. We had told all this to the Americans here and demanded that he be released. In his last letter home, he said he hoped to be freed soon. So what happened to him?"

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