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1985: Gunmen hijack Italian cruise liner

Palestinian militants have hijacked an Italian cruise liner, the Achille Lauro, in the Mediterranean and threatened to blow it up.

The gunmen are demanding the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

There are said to be 420 passengers and crew on board the ship including six Britons.

Little is yet known about the hijackers but Egyptian and Italian authorities are said to be in communication with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

Emergency meeting

The Naples-based ship was commandeered this afternoon shortly after leaving the port of Alexandria in Egypt on its way to Port Said.

Most of the passengers disembarked in Alexandria to go on a sight-seeing tour and were planning to rejoin the cruise further up the Egyptian coast.

The Achille Lauro's present position and intended destination is unknown, but the Italian Navy is sending ships and reconnaissance aircraft in an attempt to establish its location.

Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi is understood to be holding an emergency meeting to discuss options with his foreign and defence ministers.

Marine hijackings are uncommon. In 1961 the passenger liner Santa Maria was taken over by opponents of the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, but it ended peacefully.

Notable sea hijacks have also occurred off Singapore, Greece and Cambodia in the 1970s.

Experts say a forced boarding of the Achille Lauro could result in heavy hostage casualties.

I was there
When the Achille Lauro was hijacked in October 1985 I was working as a receptionist at a Cairo Hotel.

At around 0200 hours on my late night shift I received a phone call from one of the Egyptian travel agents asking if I have 300 rooms available!

I was surprised and answered with hesitance that we do have availability. In three hours around 350 guests arrived in shocked condition.

They were passengers of the Achille Lauro that went on a trip to Cairo and were supposed to rejoin the ship at PortSaid.

I remember that I had to deal with this situation for three days nonstop. They were the longest three days I worked during my entire career.
Mohamed Samy, Egypt

In Context
The hijackers were from the Palestinian Liberation Front, a splinter group of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

They shot dead a disabled American tourist, 69 year-old Leon Klinghoffer and had his body thrown overboard with his wheelchair.

The crisis ended on 10 October. Egypt gave free passage to the hijackers in exchange for the rest of the hostages.

But US Navy jets intercepted a chartered Egypt Air 737 carrying the gunmen and forced it to land in Italy.

Four of them were tried in Italy and sentenced to long prison terms. Abu Abbas, the alleged mastermind escaped jail and stands convicted in absentia.

He was arrested by US special forces in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in April 2003 and died in custody in March 2004. A post mortem examination showed he died of heart disease.

The Achille Lauro caught fire and sank in 1994.

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