Leader Reported Arrested, PLF Denies Report
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ The whereabouts of Abul Abbas, mastermind of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking, were a mystery today after a splinter group of his Palestinian faction reported he was arrested in Iraq, then later denied it.
There was no immediate explanation for the conflicting reports. One PLO source said it may have been an effort to flush out Abul Abbas, who has been in hiding since May.
The arrest report originated in a typewritten statement bearing the name of the Palestine Liberation Front and distributed to Western news agencies in Beirut.
The statement said Abbas was picked up by Iraqi police Saturday as he was traveling overland from Baghdad to Amman for meetings with Palestinian leaders.
It is not clear why the Iraqi government would have arrested Abbas. He has been given sanctuary there since the ship hijacking.
Later, a PLF representative in Lebanon, Nazem al-Yousef, told The Associated Press in the southern port city of Sidon:
″We didn’t issue a statement. The leader is free and has not been arrested.″
He refused to say whether Abul Abbas was in Iraq or not.
Yousef accused the rival PLF faction of the late Talaat Yacoub, which is supported by Iraq’s foe, Syria, of issuing the statement.
There have been recent reports in Arab newspapers of quarrels over finances in the organization, which is believed to have received millions of dollars from Saddam Hussein.
The PLF has offices in Baghdad and Tunis, as well as Lebanon and other Arab countries. Yacoub’s Damascus-based wing split from Abul Abbas after the PLF broke off from the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, in 1977.
The report of Abbas’ arrest also was denied by a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Front in Tunis, and by the PLO’s ambassador to Iraq, Azzam al-Ahmed.
The ambassador said Abul Abbas, whose real name is Mohammed Zaidan Abbas, went to a PLO Central Council meeting in Tunis in May and never returned to Baghdad, his main headquarters since before the Achille Lauro hijacking.
The Palestine Liberation Front in Tunis has been aligned with Abbas, but dissident factions of the front have operated in other Arab countries, including the one in Lebanon.
A knowledgeable PLO source in Jordan said it was possible the report was part of an effort to force Abbas from hiding by making him appear in public to prove he hasn’t been arrested.
An Italian court convicted the 44-year-old Abbas in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison for masterminding the three-day hijacking that started Oct. 7, 1985. An elderly American, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed.
Abbas said the guerrillas seized the ship as a means of getting to Israel and launching an attack there.
After the passengers were released, a plane carrying Abbas and his men from Tunis was forced down in Sicily by U.S. Navy fighters. Abbas and his men were turned over to the Italian government.
The Italians allowed Abbas to fly to Yugoslavia before a U.S. warrant could be served, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to justify his arrest.
Abbas has been a rogue figure in the PLO whose actions have repeatedly embarrassed his mentor, leader Yasser Arafat. An abortive seaborne raid by PLF guerillas on Israel in May 1990 led President Bush to suspend a dialogue with the PLO and handed the Israelis a powerful propaganda weapon.