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Serb who hijacked U.S. plane in 1979 dies

Nikola Kavaja hijacked a U.S. passenger jet in 1979 with the intention of crashing it into Yugoslav Communist Party headquarters. He died Monday.
Nikola Kavaja claimed he intended to assassinate to former Yugoslavia's dictator Josip Broz Tito. He also said Osama bin Laden must have copied his idea of crashing passenger jets into tall buildings.Bosko Karanovic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nikola Kavaja, who hijacked a U.S. passenger jet in 1979 with the intention of crashing it into Yugoslav Communist Party headquarters, has died.

Kavaja, 76, died of a heart attack at his home in Belgrade late Monday, the Blic daily newspaper said. Other local media also reported his death.

The self-declared anti-communist hijacked an American Airlines Boeing 707 in New York and flew it over the Atlantic with the aim of crashing it into the party headquarters in a high-rise in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

He abandoned his hijack mission in Ireland, saying at the time he was not sure of the exact location of the downtown party office and did not want innocent civilians to die if the jet missed the target.

Kavaja was extradited to the United States and spent 18 years in a federal prison on hijack charges. He was released on parole before returning to Serbia in 1999. His parole was to expire in 2019.

Kavaja claimed in a number of interviews with Serbia's newspapers that Osama bin Laden must have stolen his idea of crashing jets into tall buildings during the 9/11 attack in New York and Washington.

But terrorism experts said Tuesday they doubted his claim, citing plots to attack 11 planes flying from Asia to the U.S. in 1995, and a plot to hijack a plane and fly it into the Eiffel Tower in 1994. In addition, as early as 1974, an attempt by a gunman to commandeer a jetliner in Baltimore and force the pilot to fly it into the White House ended in an airport shootout in which the would-be hijacker killed himself.

Kavaja also claimed that he was recruited by the CIA to kill former communist dictator Josip Broz Tito, who ruled Yugoslavia from 1945 until he died in 1980, a claim Lewis called "unusual."

Many nationalist Serbs considered Kavaja a hero and a patriot, while others thought of him as a ruthless terrorist.