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Italian liner MS Achille Lauro hijacked
On Oct. 1, 1985 Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-15 fighter-bombers destroyed the PLO HQ in Tunisia during Operation Wooden Leg. While the PLO restrained from exacting revenge, one of its offshoots — the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) — did not. Working along a plan for a suicide attack on Israeli soldiers in the port of Ashdod, developed over nearly 11 months, four of them hijacked the Italian liner MS Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt on Oct. 1, 1985. After directing the vessel to Tartus in Syria, the hijackers demanded the release of 50 Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons.
On Oct. 8, the Syrian government refused permission for Achille Lauro to dock at Tartus: the hijackers then murdered the 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer a retired wheelchair-bound Jewish American businessman and forced the ship’s barber and waiter to throw his body and wheelchair overboard. Subsequently, the hijackers ordered the ship towards Port Said in Egypt: after two days of negotiations, they agreed to give up in exchange for safe conduct to Tunisia.
US Navy F-14 Tomcats trailing Achille Lauro Hijackers airliner
On Oct. 10, the four hijackers boarded an EgyptAir Boeing 737 airliner, which took off from Cairo and headed for Tunisia. US Navy F-14 Tomcat carrier-based fighter jets located the airliner 80 miles south of Crete and, without announcing themselves, trailed the airliner in darkness as it sought and was denied permission to land at Tunis. After a request to land at the Athens airport was likewise refused, the fighters turned on their running lights, flew wing-to-wing with the airliner, and ordered it to land at the Naval Air Station and NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily.
Unbeknown to the terrorist a US Navy SEAL Team Six assault force was also trailing behind them and the F-14s in two US Air Force C-141 transport aircraft. When all aircraft landed somewhat simultaneously at Sigonella, the SEAL assault force immediately surrounded the escape plane with all intentions of capturing the terrorists and taking them into custody.
Italian territorial rights
Simultaneously, however, Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi claimed Italian territorial rights over the NATO base, and deployed Italian Air Force personnel and Carabinieri (the national military police of Italy), who lined up surrounding the SEALs. A delicate international standoff ensued, but the situation was resolved before an assault became necessary. The US eventually capitulated to the Italians and allowed the hijackers to be taken into Italian custody after receiving assurances that the hijackers would be tried for murder.
While most stories about the Achille Lauro Affair usually end after the two USAF C-141s carrying the SEAL Team Six flew away from Sigonella, the drama surrounding the Egyptian Boeing 737 SU-AYK actually went on. Around 0550 on Oct. 11, the four hijackers finally emerged out of the aircraft and surrendered to the Carabinieri and the Italian Judge Roberto Pennisi. However, PLF-leader Abu Abbas and PLO representative Hani el-Assan remained on board, together with 17 Egyptian crew and soldiers. After negotiations that lasted for most of the day, and in the light of Egyptian authorities officially requesting the return of the airliner while threatening not to release Achille Lauro, which was still docked at Port Said, the decision was taken to let the Boeing 737 return to Cairo.
As told by Tom Cooper, Albert Grandolini and Arnaud Delalande in their book Libyan Air Wars Part: 2 1985-1986, the airliner took off from Sigonella around 2155, followed by a Piaggio PD.808 carrying Admiral Martini. Suspicious about US intentions, Martini requested a fighter escort — and was soon proven right.
A North American T-39 Sabreliner of the USAF that had remained at Sigonella took off from there around 2204 — without authorisation from the Italian flight control. After a few minutes, it caught up with the airliner carrying the hijackers and began shadowing it from a very close position, apparently calling the crew and trying to divert the Boeing to a USAF base in Spain. Only the arrival of two F-104S Starfighters from the XII Gruppo/36th Stormo, scrambled from Gioia del Colle AB, saved the situation, forcing the Sabreliner away.
F-14 Tomcats appearing from the rear
The Egyptian pilot meanwhile turned his aircraft east and into Italian airspace, and only then continued north again. Minutes later, the Boeing was joined by a pair of F-104s from the X Gruppo/9th Stormo, scrambled from Grazzanise AB. When this formation of six aircraft approached Rome, it suddenly sighted shadows of two additional unknown fighters approaching through the darkness from the rear. One of the Italian pilots involved later recalled:
“It was dark but there was enough residual light to see for a few hundred metres. Two F-14 Tomcats appeared from the rear with their navigational lights out. One passed by me and took a position very close to the Boeing 737. We called them on the radio, several times, warned them, and wiggled with our wings to attract their attention to us: I gave the front Tomcat hand signals to distance. But its pilot reacted with [a] sharp turn to the side and positioned behind our Number 4 Starfighter.
“As the Number 4 turned to the side, I’ve heard Number 3 calling, ‘This Zombie is still behind you and doing so as if he can’t hear us, that idiot!’ The other American exploited this confusion and attempted to get close to the Boeing, but I manoeuvred my Starfighter inbetween him and the airliner. He evaded to the side and accelerated. [I’d] had enough, and screamed on the radio in English: `Get lost before we collide, you piece of shit!’”
This time there was an immediate answer from the Americans:
“You damn sons of bitches! This aircraft is mine. Do you understand? Mine! Get out of my way!”
Meanwhile, all eight aircraft approached within about 40km of Rome and the Egyptian pilot of the Boeing 737 began to descend for landing. Realising the Italian Starfighter pilots would not give up, the two Tomcats descended too; accelerating away at very low altitude, they disappeared under the radar horizon of the Italian flight control — supposedly with the help of electronic countermeasures.
SU-AYK landed safely at Ciampino IAP around 2306 local time. Only seven minutes later, a T-39 Sabreliner — apparently the same that took off from Sigonella and shadowed SU-AYK on the first part of her trip to Rome — appeared over Ciampino, as recalled by the same Italian pilot:
“The American demanded permission to land, but his request was turned down. Then he declared [an] emergency and turned off his radio. He landed and rolled towards the Boeing with [no regard] for everybody else, prompting [the] local authorities to temporarily close the airport. Finally, he stopped close to [the] Egyptians but by then Carabinieri were in position: they surrounded the Sabreliner, and the crew was taken away. I don’t know what happened to them, but guess that affair was quickly swept under the carpet.”
Not prosecuting Achille Lauro Hijackers
Although US officials presented recordings to Craxi of intercepted radio messages between Abu Abbas and the hijackers while the latter were still onboard Achille Lauro on the morning of Oct. 12, the suspicious Italian Prime Minister declared them insufficient to prosecute Abbas and el-Assan. On the contrary, the Boeing 737 was quickly refuelled and transferred to Fiumicino IAP near Rome, where the two Palestinians boarded a Yugoslavian airliner for Belgrade under false names. The EgyptAir airliner was left to return to Cairo, where the pilots received a hero’s welcome.
Libyan Air Wars Part: 2 1985-1986 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Mike Freer Via Wikipedia