WASHINGTON – Palestinian Liberation Front leader Abu Abbas was captured by American forces on the outskirts of Baghdad and is in U.S. custody, Central Command announced Tuesday.
Abbas' group killed an American on the hijacked cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985.
Abbas was taken by American special operations forces during a raid Monday night on the southern outskirts of the capital city, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
Several of his associates were also detained during raids at several sites around Baghdad, defense officials said. Commandos, tipped off by U.S. intelligence to Abbas' whereabouts, also seized documents -- including Yemeni and Lebanese passports -- and weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, officials said.
American officials would not say whether Abbas would be held inside Iraq, taken to a third country or detained at a U.S. base. They also would not say whether he would face charges in the United States. Abbas was sentenced in absentia to life in prison in Italy for masterminding the Achille Lauro hijacking.
The man known as Abu Abbas, whose name actually is Mohammed Abbas, led a faction of the Palestine Liberation Front, a Palestinian splinter group.
His faction operated out of Tunisia until the October 1985 attack on the Achille Lauro, after which it relocated to Iraq. His group was also responsible for some attacks in Israel.
"He got away from us, and we've been chasing him ever since," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "He's a big catch for us. It's an old score to settle."
President Bush mentioned Abbas in an October speech in which he outlined the United States' argument for removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power.
"Iraq has ... provided safe haven to Abu Abbas, who was responsible for seizing the Achille Lauro and killing an American passenger," Bush said. "And we know that Iraq is continuing to finance terror and gives assistance to groups that use terrorism to undermine Middle East peace."
The PLF faction under Abbas was a conduit for Saddam's payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service reported earlier this year that Israel captured several Palestinians who trained at a PLF camp in Iraq and were told by Abbas to attack an Israeli airport and other targets.
Abbas, whose age has been reported between 55 and 62, had eluded arrest since his four of his followers hijacked the Achille Lauro as it sailed from Egypt to Israel in October 1985. They demanded that Israel release 50 imprisoned Palestinians.
During the hijacking, his followers shot and killed Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The hijackers then tossed Klinghoffer and his wheelchair off the cruise ship.
Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, along with nine friends from the New York area, took the cruise to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary. They were among 500 passengers taken hostage. Klinghoffer's wife died of cancer just four months after the hijacking.
Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the Klinghoffers' grown daughters, said Tuesday, "Bringing Abbas to justice will send a strong signal to terrorists anywhere in the world that there is no place to run, no place to hide."
The hijacking ended Oct. 9 after Egypt negotiated with the hijackers. Abbas, who helped negotiate the surrender, and the four hijackers were flown out of Egypt on a jet that was intercepted by U.S. Navy fighters and forced to land in Sicily.
Tensions arose as soon as the plane landed. Armed U.S. and Italian soldiers faced off, each side demanding custody of the hijackers. The situation was only resolved after feverish telephone calls between Premier Bettino Craxi and President Reagan.
The Italians took custody of the four and promised to try them, but refused to detain Abbas, saying the evidence compiled by Washington was insufficient and that he held an Iraqi diplomatic passport. Within two days, he slipped out of the country.
Two weeks later, Italian magistrates filed charges against Abbas and issued an arrest warrant, which has remained outstanding.
In June 1986 he was tried in absentia, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for masterminding the hijacking. The sentence was upheld on appeal.
Ten years later, Abbas apologized for the slaying.
"The killing of the passenger was a mistake. ... We are sorry," he said.
Abbas was a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee from 1984 but left in 1991, according to the U.S. State Department.
In 1994, the Achille Lauro caught fire in the Indian Ocean off Somalia and sank.
The U.S. Justice Department has said it has no grounds to seek Abbas' extradition, as there is no outstanding warrant against him. The American warrants were dropped after his conviction in Italy.
A so-called "long-arm" U.S. statute, to aid in prosecution of those committing terrorism against American citizens overseas, was not enacted until after the Achille Lauro hijacking.
In the 1990s, Baghdad, largely out of reach to western security services, had become home to both Abbas and Abu Nidal, another once-feared terrorist mastermind.
Last year, Abu Nidal died violently in Baghdad. Iraqi officials said he committed suicide; Abu Nidal's supporters say the Iraqis killed him.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.