FILE PHOTO: TWA FLIGHT 847 HIJACKERS
AP file
Two hooded Shiite Muslim men, who were identified as hijackers of the TWA jet seized on a flight from Athens to Rome on July 14, 1985, and commandeered to Beirut airport, hold a news conference in the Beirut airport's transit terminal on July 30, the day the standoff ended.
updated 6/29/2005 6:41:51 PM ET 2005-06-29T22:41:51

With Lebanon free of Syria’s grasp, the United States issued an unusual reminder Wednesday about the millions of dollars still offered for information on three Shiite Muslims who hijacked an American passenger jet 20 years ago, killing a Navy SEAL.

The three are still believed to be in Lebanon or Syria, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut said in a statement on its Web site, adding that it is offering a $5 million reward for information on their whereabouts.

“The United States will pay cash rewards in any currency for information that assists in bringing to justice those who murder and terrorize its citizens,” it said.

Both Lebanon and Syria have denied the three men are on their soil.

TWA Flight 847 was hijacked in 1985 on a flight from Athens to Rome, and during a 17-day standoff at Beirut’s airport, gunmen killed U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem and threw his body onto the tarmac.

The rewards are offered for Imad Mughniyeh, the former Hezbollah security chief who is also accused in the kidnappings of Americans in Beirut and other terror attacks, as well as two other men linked to Hezbollah, Hassan Izz-Al-Din and Ali Atwa.

The embassy said the reminder was timed for the 20th anniversary of the June 14, 1985, hijacking. But it also came at a time of dramatic change in Lebanon.

Syrian withdrawal
Syria’s military withdrew in April after a 29-year presence, and Damascus’ longtime control of Lebanon has crumbled. Syria’s opponents have a majority in parliament and are putting together a government.

Syria has long been accused of protecting militant groups in Lebanon, but its ability to do so now is hampered. Individuals may be more willing to come forward with information now without the shadow of reprisals from Syrian intelligence agents — who once kept a grip on even day-to-day aspects of Lebanese life.

Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed guerrilla group that is now taking a stronger role in Lebanese politics, has denied any link to the hijacking.

The reminder of the reward also came as a U.N. team is in Beirut to investigate the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The inquiry has set a precedent in a country where scores of assassinations have gone unpunished, and has raised hopes that other crimes might be investigated.

The hijacking of Flight 847 produced some of the more notorious images of the attacks on Westerners that occurred during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. One photo showed a hijacker holding a gun to pilot John Testrake’s head as they leaned out of the cockpit window during the standoff.

153 were aboard flight
The passenger jet was hijacked by Shiite Muslim extremists with 153 people, mostly Americans, aboard. The hijackers forced the plane to fly back and forth several times between Algiers and Beirut airport. On the second day of the seizure, June 15, Stethem, 23, was killed.

After mediation by Shiite moderates, the hostages were released June 30, but the hijackers went free. Nothing has been heard about them since the civil war ended in 1990.

All three men were indicted in the U.S. in absentia for their role in the hijacking. The rewards were first posted when the U.S. put out a list of the 22 most wanted following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The TWA hijacking came during Lebanon’s chaotic sectarian-driven civil war. Mughniyeh’s forces were linked to the kidnapping of scores of Americans, Frenchmen, Britons, Germans and other foreigners in Lebanon at about the same period.

Mughniyeh is also suspected of being behind suicide attacks against the U.S. Embassy and the Marine base in Lebanon in the 1980s, bombings that killed more than 260 Americans. His present connections to Hezbollah are unclear.

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