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Palestinian group: US assassinated Abbas
Updated: 2004-03-11 08:57

A Palestinian guerrilla group accused the United States on Wednesday of assassinating its leader Abul Abbas, and a U.S. Pentagon official said the United States believes he died of a heart attack.

Abbas, 56, died Monday in U.S. detention in Baghdad. He was known for leading the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro passenger ship in which a wheelchair-bound Jewish American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer, was killed and thrown overboard.

The U.S. deputy chief of operations in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, said Abbas almost certain died of natural causes and an autopsy would confirm that. The U.S. Pentagon official said the autopsy had not been performed by that officials believe the cause was a heart attack.

Abbas' deputy in the Palestinian Liberation Front, Omar Shibli, said Abbas had never complained of ill health in letters he had sent in recent months.

"Abul Abbas' detention was illegal and his condition in the jail was very bad," Shibli said. "The Americans treated him in a way that led to his death in his prison cell."

The Palestine Liberation Front issued a statement in Beirut saying the United States had wrongly arrested Abbas and assassinated him.

The statement said his "assassination" after being arrested without justification "confirms beyond any doubt their absolute hostility to our people and exposes their designs which conform with the Zionist entity."

Abbas was captured in south Baghdad on April 15, days after U.S.-led forces overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein. He spent his last 11 months in American custody.

Abbas' widow, Reem Nimer, told Associated Press Television News on Wednesday she wanted the Americans to explain how he died.

"They know how Abul Abbas died a martyr. Was he deprived of a medicine which led to a deterioration of his health? Or did he suffer a sudden stroke? Or was he tortured? We have the right to ask all these questions and they must answer them," Nimer said, with tears in her eyes.

Nimer, in her late 40s, lives with her 20-year-old son Ali in Beirut. She rejected labeling her husband as a terrorist, saying he fought for his homeland, Palestine.

"The Zionist and American propaganda accused him of being a terrorist while he was a patriotic man committed to his national cause," Nimer said.

Nimer has met an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross to discuss retrieving Abbas' corpse from Iraq. She said she wanted her husband to be buried in the Palestinian territories, but if Israel rejected that, "we will look for any Arab country."

Abbas had been convicted in absentia by an Italian court for the 1985 hijacking and sentenced to life in prison in 1986, but never served any time. His arrest came 18 years after seizing the Achille Lauro off Port Said, Egypt.

The Palestinian Authority had demanded his release, saying Washington had pledged not to prosecute him as part of a blanket agreement not to press charges against Palestinians who acted against Israel before interim peace accords were signed in the 1990s.

Abbas was a member of the PLO's executive committee, but left in 1991. His tiny faction has very few followers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to Israel's Shin Bet security service, the PLF had sent some members to Iraq for military training.

Abbas supported the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel. After that, his group halted direct militant activity against Israel. His support in the Palestinian territories was limited, and his public activities consisted mostly of participating in official talks among Palestinian factions.

In an AP interview in 1996, Abbas apologized for the Achille Lauro affair. "The killing of the passenger was a mistake. ... We are sorry," he said. Abbas, however, never mentioned Klinghoffer's name, and the American's family rejected the apology.

Wednesday's session of the Palestinian Legislative Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah began with a moment of silence for Abbas.

Shibli, Abbas' PLF deputy, received condolences from 20 people in his Gaza City office. Koranic verses played in the background and a large picture of Abbas hung on the wall, garlanded with flowers sent by former Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan.

In Beirut, Abbas's son, Ali, described his father as "a brave man who taught me manhood."

Ali said he planned to follow in his father's footsteps.

"I don't know if I will use the same method," he said.

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