U.S. Special Forces captured Abu Abbas, along with several other terror suspects, in a raid on a private home in the southern outskirts of Baghdad Monday night local time. He is now in U.S. military custody in Iraq, Central Command officials said on Wednesday. The raid on Abbas' hideout also uncovered weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, as well as passports from Yemen and Lebanon and other documents, military officials said.
Abbas, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front during the 1980's and 90's, has been living in Baghdad under the protection of Saddam Hussein's government.
U.S. Central Command officials called the capture of Abu Abbas, whose real name is Muhammed Abbas, a victory in the war against terror.
"Coalition special operations forces are actively breaking the Iraqi links to terrorists," Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, deputy director of Operations for U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday in Doha, Qatar.
"[W]e've said for a long time that Baghdad and Iraq and the [Saddam Hussein] regime that no longer exists have harbored terrorists, have provided a safe haven for terrorists, and in some cases have facilitated the operations of terrorists," Brooks said. "I think the arrest of Mr. Abbas makes it very clear that that was true. And we continue to do greater efforts than that in other areas to find other terrorist links and to eliminate terrorist organizations that are in Iraq."
Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, Abbas tried to escape to Syria several times, but was turned back by Syrian officials, an unidentified senior Bush administration official told the Washington Post.
The former Palestinian leader, now believed to be in his mid-fifties, reportedly spent much of the last 18 years in Iraq, but has traveled to other places in the Middle East, including the Gaza Strip, with the permission of the Israelis, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
U.S. and Israeli officials suspect Abbas and his PLF faction coordinated payments of roughly $35 million from Saddam to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Israeli officials also accused the operation of running a guerrilla training camp in Iraq for future terrorist attacks. The camp reportedly included instruction on firing shoulder-launched missiles at civilian airliners.
In recent years, Abbas has denied having connections to the al-Qaida terrorist group, the organization blamed for the terror attacks against the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. In a rare interview with the New York Times last November, Abbas condemned the Sept. 11 attacks and denounced al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden as a terrorist.
Abbas has also denied he planned the hijacking of the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea, in which a disabled elderly American Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was shot to death and thrown overboard in his wheelchair.
An Italian court in 1986 convicted Abbas in absentia for planning the hijacking and sentenced him to life in prison. Italian Justice Minister Roberto Castelli said Wednesday his country would seek Abbas' extradition.
The Palestinian Authority on Wednesday also demanded Abbas' release, saying his arrest violated the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, which was signed by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. Under the agreement, no members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization could be arrested or tried for crimes committed before Sept. 13, 1993, Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Klinghoffer's daughters, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, said they want Abbas brought to the United States to stand trial.
"We want him brought here, and we want him tried here, in our country, and we want to know that he's going to serve his full sentence, which is hopefully a life sentence," Lisa Klinghoffer said on NBC's "Today" Show.
U.S. Central Command officials on Wednesday could not comment on the future plan for Abbas.