Sitting in his Gaza Strip office 13 years after the slaying of American tourist Leon Klinghoffer, former PLO guerrilla chieftain Abu Abbas offered a short laugh and a hard look.

"You never forget, all of you, do you?" he asked a journalist.

This week, he received his answer. Abbas, after 18 years of avoiding arrest for masterminding the hijacking of an Italian cruise ship and the slaying of disabled tourist, was arrested Monday night by U.S. special operations forces in Baghdad.

Abbas, whose exact age was not available but is believed to range from 55 to 62, proved an exceptionally elusive quarry, slipping through the fingers of U.S. officials shortly after the hijacking. Even after his conviction in an Italian court, Abbas popped up throughout the Middle East in recent years, fielding reporters' questions without any fear.

He spent most of his adult life planning attacks on Israel, including a pair of botched 1981 aerial assaults using a motorized hang-glider and a hot-air balloon.

"It might be dangerous, but I'm not afraid," Abbas told The Associated Press in a 1998 interview. "I'm just going to continue my work."

Israel first allowed Abbas back into Gaza in 1996 to vote on a landmark resolution by the Palestinian parliament-in-exile renouncing calls for Israel's destruction. He made three more visits in the next two years.

Abbas was born in a refugee camp in Syria after his family fled from their home near Haifa when the state of Israel was created. He quickly became a rogue figure whose actions have embarrassed his mentor, PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

He reportedly joined the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 -- one of its youngest recruits.

But it wasn't until October 1985 when Abbas, whose real name is Mohammed Abbas, garnered international attention when the ship Achille Lauro was seized off Port Said, Egypt, by members of a PLO splinter group called the Palestine Liberation Front.

Hundreds of passengers, including Klinghoffer and his wife of 36 years, were taken hostage. Marilyn Klinghoffer, when she last saw her husband, had a machine gun to her head.

Her husband was then shot to death. His body and his wheelchair were thrown from the ship. The other passengers were released after a two-day ordeal and the commandos surrendered to Egyptian authorities, who put the alleged killers on a flight to the PLO's headquarters in Tunisia.

U.S. Navy fighters forced the flight down in Sicily, under Italian jurisdiction. But the Italians, to the Americans' dismay, allowed Abbas to flee to Yugoslavia before a U.S. warrant for piracy and hostage-taking could be served.

Abbas disappeared, and international manhunts and a price on his head failed to flush him out. He was convicted in absentia in an Italian court and sentenced to life in prison in 1986, but never served any time.

His faction relocated to Iraq after the attack.

Abbas, a big, burly man with a full fleshy face, says he was not even aboard at the time of the Klinghoffer shooting, and that the guerrillas had only intended to use the cruise to slip into Israel, not commandeer it.

Five years after the Achille Lauro, Abbas helped plan an attack by his organization on Nizzanim beach in southern Israel in 1990. It failed, but succeeded in ending the nascent U.S.-PLO dialogue at the time.

He later apologized for the Klinghoffer slaying.

By 1998, it seemed efforts to bring in Abbas were over. Italy had made no strenuous efforts to extradite him, and the U.S. Justice Department said it had no grounds to seek his extradition. The American warrants were dropped after his conviction in Italy.

But in January, he said he was forced to cut short a working trip to Cairo because the United States was looking for him.