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Claim of big catch in retired terrorist once America forgot

Baghdad, April 16 (Reuters): The US today trumpeted the capture of a veteran Palestinian guerrilla chief in Iraq as proof of a link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism as troops scoured Baghdad for the ousted President and his aides.

The US military said the detention in Baghdad of Abu Abbas, mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, helped to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq.

“When we came into this the secretary of defence (Donald Rumsfeld) said one big concern was the nexus between this regime and terrorism. This proves the nexus was there,” said Captain Frank Thorp, spokesman at the US war headquarters in Qatar.

But Abbas has long renounced violence and Israel has allowed him to travel to Gaza, declaring him immune from prosecution over the hijacking. Washington itself dropped a warrant for h is arrest several years ago, but he is wanted in Italy.

However, the US said today a 1995 agreement between Israel and the Palestinians did not give immunity to Abu Abbas.

Under an agreement signed on September 28, 1995, members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation may not be detained or tried for matters they committed before the Oslo peace accord of 1993, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who demanded the US set Abu Abbas free.

But a US state department official, who asked not to be identified, said: “The 1995 interim agreement concerns arrangements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority for the detention and prosecution of certain persons. It does not apply to the legal status of persons detained in a third country.”

US forces have launched spot raids around Baghdad in search of people linked to Saddam, who has vanished along with his two sons and most of his associates. Only two out of 55 people on a US “most wanted” list have so far been caught.

US Central Command said Abbas’ capture “removes a portion of the terror network supported by Iraq and represents yet another victory in the global war on terrorism”.

Special forces captured Abbas, who has never been linked with the al Qaida group blamed for the September 11 attacks, in a raid near southern Baghdad, the US military said.

Central Command declined to say what would happen to Abbas, but Italy declared that it would seek his extradition. Abbas was sentenced in absentia in Italy to life in prison for planning the Achille Lauro hijack in the eastern Mediterranean.

The hijackers killed a disabled elderly American Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, shooting him and pushing his wheelchair overboard.

The Palestinian Authority demanded Abbas’ release, saying his detention breached a West Asian peace deal stating that Palestinian officials were immune in cases dating from before 1993.

US officials said Abbas was not covered by that deal.

In recent years, Abbas has been clearly visible in the Gaza Strip, but largely out of mind. The Israelis had left him alone, saying he was immune from prosecution in Israel under interim peace deals with the Palestinians.

Five years ago, Abbas, now in his mid-50s, won a “get out of jail free” card from none other than the Israeli Supreme Court.

The daughters of the elderly American who was killed on the hijacked Achille Lauro said today they wanted captured Abu Abbas tried in the United States.

Klinghoffer’s daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, said Abbas should be brought to the United States immediately.

“We want him brought here. We want him tried here in our country. We want to know that he will serve his full sentence -- which is hopefully a life sentence,” said Lisa Klinghoffer in an interview with NBC’s Today show.

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