Terrorists of the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the cruise ship “Achille Lauro”; a US citizen was killed. It was the beginning of a serious diplomatic crisis and a harsh confrontation between Italian military and US Navy SEAL, which only fortunately not turned into armed confrontation.

On 7 October 1985 a group of four terrorists belonging to the pro-Syrian faction FLP (Palestine Liberation Front) of the Palestinian group PLO hijacked the Italian cruise ship “Achille Lauro” owned by a Neapolitan shipping company, the heir of the legendary Fleet Lauro, while it was at anchor near the Egyptian coast . About 400 people, including passengers and crew staff, were on board, they were held as hostages.

The four terrorists had embarked mingling with tourists who were the majority of US nationality. They had planned a bomb attack in the Israeli port of Ashdod, the next call of the ship, but, as they were discovered by a crew member that he noticed the presence of weapons in the cabin of the four terrorists, gave up on that and decided to proceed to the hijack of ship. At the time of the hijack, on October 7 h. 1 pm, there was a shootout and a sailor was wounded slightly.

The terrorists of the FLP (Palestine Liberation Front) demanded as ransom the release of 52 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons. The commander of the ship Gerardo De Rosa managed to launch an SOS, picked up in Sweden and cabled to the Italian authorities.

The Italian government decided to negotiate with the terrorists, to prevent the uncertain outcome of strength actions. As the ship had set sail heading for the port of Tartous in Syria, Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti began in communication with President of Syria Assad, at that time in Germany for surgery, to facilitate the deal.

On the night Andreotti contacted directly Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, who was in Tunis. Arafat assured that the PLO had taked no part in the hijacking and he offered to act as an intermediary with the terrorists for the release of the ship; the same night he sent Hani El Hassam and Abu Abbas in Egypt to begin negotiations.

Meanwhile in Italy it was prepared the “Margherita” operation involving the transfer with four helicopters of a group of paratroopers supported by raiders and scouts. This group would have to intervene only in case of a failure of negotiations for the solution of the crisis.

225px-Official_Portrait_of_President_Reagan_1981
Ronald Reagan 1981

On 8 October morning the ship arrived at the port of Tartous and the terrorists demanded to dock. Docking permission was denied by the Syrian authorities, it would be allowed only in case of opening of negotiations between Italy and the hijackers; the US government, in the person of President Ronald Reagan, opposed strongly to the negotiations.

The terrorists threatened to kill one hostage every three minutes if they had not been begun negotiations with the Italian, German, US and UK. At that juncture they killed American citizen Leon Klinghoffer, a jew who was in a wheel chair for a severe disability; the body was thrown overboard. Fortunately the threat to kill a passenger every three minutes was not result.

The US government, unaware of the killing of its citizen, was decided to armed intervention to which the ministers Andreotti and Spadolini were favorable; the head of goverment Bettino Craxi was opposed, however he would agree in case the action command was in Italian hands; Craxi was confiding in the good relations he had with the Palestinian world to solve the crisis peacefully.

225px-Bettino_Craxi-1
Bettino Craxi

On 9 October the ship moved away from the Syrian coast to return to Port Said, where he arrived in the morning, following the invitation of Abu Abbas, who figured as a negotiator, but that subsequent investigations spotted in him the organizer of the failed attack at Ashdod . There were intensive negotiations with the Italian government and a telephone conversation between the Italian services and the ship’s captain De Rosa who assured to be no victims and injured on the ship. The false communication of the commander was later justified by the primary objective of the commander to safeguard passengers and crew favoring the peaceful liberation of the ship.

After this occurs the Italian authorities agreed to grant immunity to the Palestinian command in exchange for the release of the ship, therefore, despite American opposition, it was allowed the terrorists to leave the ship under the protection of the Egyptian authorities; At 3pm the “Achille Lauro” docked on the quay of Port Said.

That same evening the Italian ambassador Magliulo, climbed on the ship to verify the conditions of the passengers and crew, was brought to the knowledge of the killing of the American passenger. The Italian Government, considering that the conditions were not verified for the safe-conduct to the terrorists because of the murder of Klinghoffer, immediately it asked for the extradition of the four members of command. Egypt informed the Italian ambassador that the four had already left for Tunisia, where was the headquarters of the PLO.

In the afternoon of 10 October Egyptian authorities had lied about the departure of the FLP command, which actually took place aboard an Egypt Air Boeing 737, requirement by the Egyptian government; as well as the four terrorists and the two PLO negotiators, also an Egyptian ambassador and some agents of the security services had risen on Boeing. At 10pm, the plane took off from the airport of Cairo direct to Tunis.

220px-An_Egyptair_Boeing_737_in_Star_Alliance_livery
Boeing 737-800 della Egyptair 2010 Kok Vermeulen CC BY 2.0

Ronald Reagan decided to intervene; four F14 Tomcat fighter interceptors took off from the aircraft carrier USS Saragota and intercepted the Egyptian plane over the skies of Malta. Meanwhile, on American solicitation, Tunis denied permission to landing the Boeing 737; following also other airports, interviewed by the commander of the Boeing, denied permission to land. The American fighters forced the Egyptian plane to follow them to the base of Sigonella in Sicily, Italian base used also by the US Air.

The base commander, Colonel Annichiarico, that the following day would leave the command, was warned that four American fighters had requested permission to land along the Egyptian plane that followed them, making silence that two C141-US Air Transport troops were also heading to the base of Sigonella.

The US government, through the exponent of the CIA Michael Leeden, warned Craxi at the last moment that the planes were heading to Sigonella, they did not inform about the two C141. Craxi allowed to land only on condition that the operation would remain in control of Italian authorities. At 11:57pm it was given permission to land.

At 00:15am of 11 October the aircraft landed; the air traffic controller, even without instructions, led the Egyptian Boeing 737 on the Italian side of the base. The plane was immediately surrounded by the airmen of the VAM unit in service at Sigonella, with the help of the military Police Department present, preventing passengers to leave the plane.

Soon after the two C 141 landed without lights, without asking permission of the control tower, where 50 soldiers of the US Navy SEAL got out ; they intended to withdraw the four terrorists and the two negotiators Abu Abbas and Hani El Hassan from the Egyptian plane.

300px-CT-39E_Sabreliner_VR-30_in_flight_1980
Sabreliner PH2 Berry USN

The SEAL surrounded 30 Italian VAM soldiers and 20 Italian military policemen who were positioned at the Boeing protection, as per orders of the Italian government. Immediately after units of the Carabinieri arrived from Catania and Syracuse entered the base, which formed a third circle around the US SEAL. Heavy vehicles and tank trucks of the Fire Department were positioned to lock the airstrips to prevent unauthorized landings and take-offs, the lights of the base were put out.

There were moments of great tension with guns blazing between the US Navy SEAL and the Italian militaries. Very early in the morning armored vehicles and more units of the military police came in base. Only at this time the American Seal withdrew from the square.

Meanwhile, talks between Washington and Rome continued intense, Reagan wanted at all costs to remove the four terrorists and the two negotiators, to transfer them to their base or in the United States. Craxi did submit reasons of national and international law, by requiring the US compliance with the legal proceedings by submitting a formal request for extradition. It should be limited to four terrorists, because the position of the two negotiators, not involved in murder of the American citizen, was considered relevant by the Italian court.

On late evening, the Boeing 737 took off from Sigonella with all passengers on board to reach Ciampino. One of the four American fighters followed the Boeing without lights and without permission to take off, trying to hijack the Boeing, but it was dissuaded by the four Italian fighters that escorted the Egyptian plane to Ciampino airport where it landed at about 12pm.

On 12 October, immediately after the landing of the Boeing 737, a unidentified aircraft flying without lights, a Sabreliner T39 with seven Navy SEALs aboard commanded personally by General Stiner, asked permission to land at Ciampino tower; since permission was refused, the Sabreliner pilot declared an emergency and landed without permission.

The American plane, after landed, parked in front of the Boeing to prevent an eventual take-off. Admiral Martini, chief of services at the airport, ordered the Sabreliner to go away from the airstrip; only minutes after the plane took off, leaving Ciampino.

The Egyptian ambassador, that was on board the Boeing, informed the authorities present at the airport that service agents on board had orders to resist with weapons any attempt to enter in the plane with the strength, being flight of state, was regarded by international law as a Egyptian soil. All passengers were picked up by a car with diplomatic plates and transferred to the Egyptian College, an annex of Egyptian embassy.

In the afternoon the two negotiators Abu Abbas and Hani El Hassan, not formally charged with any crime, left the Egyptian College with the embassy car to go to Ciampino where was leaving Boeing to Cairo.

Since it was feared an intervention of American fighters to intercept the plane, it was implemented a diversion. Boeing took off from Ciampino lending to Fiumicino soon after, stopping next to a plane of the Yugoslav Lines direct to Belgrade, that took on board the two negotiators in agreement with the authorities of Belgrade, taking off soon after. The two Palestinians landed in Belgrade under the protection of Yugoslavia.

The four terrorists were in Egyptian College were taken over by the Italian authorities and were tried in Genoa. Even Abu Abbas was tried in absentia for his role as organizer of the failed terrorist attempt and the subsequent hijack of the ship: Abu Abbas and two terrorists were sentenced to life imprisonment, a third was sentenced to 30 years in prison, the fourth was sentenced to 17 years in prison for his young age.

Following Andreotti, in a book of his, wondered how could it have happened that four terrorists had had the better of the two hundred men of the crew of the “Achille Lauro”, which were not known to be “figli di Maria” (“good boys “ – author’s note) but maritime of “Torre del Greco” (“Hard and experienced men”- author’s note). It ‘s possibile that the crew could take control of the ship with decisive action but, since in that case a shooting had to be called into account, they would count the victims among the crew and possibly also among the passengers, without also take account of the associated dangers that would run the Italian ships in route in the Eastern Mediterranean due to possible revenge of terrorist factions.

(Top photo: Nave “Achille Lauro” 1986 D.R. Walker CC BY-SA 3.0)