BAGHDAD, Iraq – Helicopters roared over at 4:30 a.m., and a few minutes later an explosion shattered the windows of the Faoud family home. For the next two hours, gunfire rattled around their one-story house; a desperate man tried to find haven by smashing his way inside.
When it was over, American troops had grabbed one of the world's most wanted men — Abul Abbas, mastermind of the 1985 cruise ship hijacking during which 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer was slain.
For the Faouds, the arrest was a revelation: No one knew the man down the street was anything more than an Arab volunteer fighting coalition forces, they said.
"I didn't know who Abul Abbas was," said Ghada Butti, mother of the Faoud house. "I have never heard of him before."
On Wednesday, she and other neighbors provided a detailed account of the firefight Tuesday morning that led to the capture of the head of the Palestine Liberation Front.
The family was asleep when the helicopters swooped in at a low altitude, awakening everyone. Minutes later, the Faouds jumped from their beds, shocked by a window-shattering explosion, followed by two more blasts.
Abul Abbas was apparently hiding in one of the houses in alley No. 6 at al-Hurriya Square. Gunfire continued for more that two hours as Abul Abbas and his followers scurried around trying to escape the U.S. raiders.
Butti recalled hearing somebody in the garden of her home trying to break through a window in her children's room. Minutes later, someone pounded hysterically at the house's main door.
"I wanted to open the door with my husband, Khaled, but before we did so I asked in English, 'Who's there?'" she recounted, saying she expected American troops to answer. "Khaled then opened the door for a few seconds, then closed it when he did not find anyone outside."
Neighborhood residents said they believed Abul Abbas was caught after taking refuge in an abandoned house. The house, which had no ceiling, was once an inn but was sold few years ago, one man said.
After Khaled Faoud closed the door, loudspeakers boomed out a message in Arabic:
"Caution, caution, caution. Abul Abbas, surrender. Coalition special forces have surrounded the area. Follow the instructions and move forward toward the voice. Raise your hands up and walk slowly. We will not harm you. Think about your family."
The message, played repeatedly, terrified Butti. "I was afraid they might have thought we were his family, and they were about to storm our house," she said.
A little more than two hours after the helicopters came, Americans soldiers stormed the family's garden gate and approached the main door. Screaming "help, help," Butti let them inside.
The soldiers told the family not to worry, but asked them to leave the house as they searched every room. Her husband and two male neighbors were taken for "two hours of interrogation," Butti said. More than 24 hours later, none had returned.
At the house next door, Zareh Krekorian was one of those taken away with Faoud. Krekorian's wife, Hermenah, took a reporter from room to room, showing smashed windows and broken locks left by the Americans' search. The main door was so badly damaged that she had to summon workers to build a wall to keep thieves out.
Butti's eldest daughter, Hind, told of seeing a bloodied body wearing an olive green uniform, dangling from the wall of their backyard. She did not know if it was an American or one of Abul Abbas' men.
U.S. soldiers also came around showing a picture of Abul Abbas and asking neighbors if they had seen him, Butti said. She did not recognize him. Another announcement in Arabic followed, with the promise of a reward for information about Abul Abbas.
Later, an American came and gave Butti and her children a box filled with 12 meals. "I don't want food," she said she told the soldier. "I want my husband back."
American troops stayed in the area for about three hours after the shooting stopped, she said.
Butti, who lives few hundred yards from the heavily bombed Air Force Command, said the raid was the most frightening part of the war for her.
"We did not feel at all that we will stay alive," she said, standing next to her 2-year-old son Faysal. "We surrendered to death that day ... After we survived all these wars we were about to die in the battle of Abul Abbas."