ABBAS
Adel Hana  /  AP
Abul Abbas at a press conference in Gaza City April 22, 1996, after years in exile.
updated 3/9/2004 5:27:17 PM ET 2004-03-09T22:27:17

Abul Abbas, head of a Palestinian splinter group, who masterminded the 1985 hijacking of an Italian passenger ship in which an American tourist was killed, has died in U.S. custody in Iraq, Palestinian officials said Tuesday.

The ship, the Achille Lauro, was commandeered by Abbas’ small Palestine Liberation Front. Palestinian militants threw an elderly wheelchair-bound Jewish American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer, overboard.

Abbas was captured in Iraq in April by U.S. forces. Late Tuesday, officials in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Abbas had died in U.S. custody.

Searching for peaceIn Washington, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abbas died recently of natural causes while in U.S. custody in Iraq. The official said his health had been deteriorating. He was believed to be in U.S. military custody.

When Abbas was captured, the Palestinian Authority demanded his release, saying the United States had pledged not to prosecute him as part of a blanket promise not to press charges against Palestinians who acted against Israel before interim peace accords were signed in the 1990s.

The United States also endorsed a 1995 interim peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians which grants PLO members immunity for violent acts committed before September 1993, when the two sides signed a mutual recognition agreement.

Abbas has been a marginal figure in the PLO. Abbas, 55, was a member of the PLO’s executive committee but left in 1991. His tiny faction has very few followers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to Israel’s Shin Bet security service, the PLF has sent some members to Iraq for military training.

In April 1996, Abbas visited Gaza for the first time as part of the amnesty offered by Israel. At the time, he apologized for the killing of Klinghoffer.

In 1998, he returned to attend a session of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians’ parliament-in-exile, for a crucial vote on abrogating chapters of the PLO founding charter calling for Israel’s destruction. In the end, Abbas did not participate in the vote.

At that time, Israeli Atorney Gneral Elyakim Rubinstein said Abbas did not pose a threat to Israeli security and that it would be unreasonable to prosecute him for acts committed before 1993.

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