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Wed Oct 7, 2020, 07:15 AM

35 Years Ago Today; MS Achille Lauro is hijacked- American Leon Klinghoffer is subsequently murdered


The Achille Lauro c. 1987

The Achille Lauro hijacking happened on October 7, 1985, when the Italian MS Achille Lauro was hijacked by four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front off the coast of Egypt, as she was sailing from Alexandria to Ashdod, Israel. A 69-year-old Jewish American man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered by the hijackers and thrown overboard. The hijacking sparked the "Sigonella Crisis".

The taking of the Achille Lauro was triggered by a surprise discovery and quickly turned violent.

Seizure of the ship
On Monday, October 7, 1985, four PLF militants hijacked Achille Lauro off Egypt. The hijackers had been surprised by a crew member and acted prematurely. The Palestinians had hidden their weapons in the gas tank of a car parked in Italy in preparation for boarding the ship. Their smuggled weapons still with gasoline residue on them, gave off a smell that the crew had noticed but had not acted on. A cabin steward, with the hijackers' stateroom in his responsibilities, surprised the four Palestinians (as they were trying to use a hairdryer to clean the residue off their weapons) by entering the unlocked door to their room in order to deliver complimentary fruit. The hijackers plan to launch an attack on Ashdod, Israel was put aside as the terrorists panicked and moved to hijack the ship instead.

The four terrorists stormed into the ship's dining room. They shot their automatic weapons over the heads of the eating passengers. Screams from the passengers meshed with the shouting of the gunmen and with the sound of falling glass shards and splinters. Viola Meskin tried to run to a door but was intercepted by a terrorist with a gun who turned her back. Austrian passenger Anna Hoeranter ran to an exit but was pushed down an adjacent flight of stairs by one of the terrorists. Other passengers ran in a panic from the dining room into the kitchen and were chased by one of the terrorists. Inside the kitchen the pursuing terrorist beat two of the kitchen staff to the floor.

The ship's executive officer notified Captain Gerardo de Rosa that there were armed men on board shooting at passengers. Captain De Rosa descended quickly through several decks moving towards the ship's stern. An agitated voice came over the ship's loudspeakers requesting he come immediately to the bridge. Arriving there, De Rosa was faced by machine guns. The terrorists fired some shots into the deck and then shouted in Arabic. They demanded he sail the ship 300 miles to the northeast to the Syrian port of Tartus.

Due to most of the passengers having disembarked at Cairo to tour the pyramids, only 97 remained on board when they became hostages.

The hijackers rounded up the rest of the passengers aboard and herded them into the dining room. They missed Hoeranter, who after having been pushed down the stairs by a terrorist had entered the first open cabin she found and hid in the bathroom. She would remain there until found by the cleaning staff four days later (after the hijackers had left). She had survived on two apples she had found and rationed.

The terrorists ordered Captain De Rosa to instruct the 450 crew members to continue with their normal duties but to stay clear of the hostages. They claimed to have a total of 20 hijackers on board. Only later would De Rosa and his officers discover that there were only four hijackers.

Within the dining room the terrorist put on displays of power to cower the hostages, menacing them with their machine guns, pulling the pins from their grenades but keeping the safety lever depressed. They had two of the women hostages hold the live grenades, causing the worry that if they fell asleep the safety levers would detach causing an explosion. The hijackers veered erratically from politeness to barbarity one moment one would wash a cup for a hostage to use, the next a hijacker would ram a gun stock into Mrs. Klinghoffer to force her from the floor, then a hijacker would escort a captive to her cabin to change out of a wet swimsuit. The hijackers also tried to engage in some political persuasion, telling the hostages "Reagan no good, Arafat good."

Before the hijackers enforced radio silence, the crew of the Achille Lauro managed to send out an S.O.S. that was picked up by a monitoring facility in Sweden. This alerted the international community that Palestinians had seized an Italian ship.

As night approached the hijackers took all the hostages up several decks to the Arazzi Lounge on the Promenade deck and gave them blankets to spend the night. While they ordered the ship's kitchen to send food up for the hostages, they placed containers they claimed were filled with gasoline around the room (apparently as a bluff to ward off the ship's crew). Despite fears of grenades and gasoline, the passengers attempted to sleep on the floor while the ship steamed towards Syria.

The tourists that had visited the pyramids reached Port Said by 10:30 but found no ship. At first they were told that traffic in the canal had delayed the ship but at 1:30 a.m. were given the truth. Passengers, like Frank Hodes, who had family or companions left on the ship began to worry.

Government reactions
Upon learning of the hijacking and that there were Americans on board, members of the Reagan administration in Washington, D.C., (in a time zone seven hours earlier than Egypt) moved to take decisive action. The Terrorist Incident Working Group (which included National Security Council staff member Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North) met in accord with predetermined counter-terrorist procedures. They recommended that a State Department Emergency Support Team be sent to Rome to assist the embassy there as the vessel was Italian. The Group also recommended that the Pentagon dispatch a team of special operations forces to Europe in case the ship needed to be seized to rescue the hostages. These recommendations were approved by the Operational Sub-Group chaired by John Poindexter and orders were sent to the State and Defense Departments. U.S. Army Major General Carl Stiner put two platoons, drawn from the Navy's counter-terrorism unit, SEAL Team Six, Army commandos from Delta Force and Air Force Combat Controllers from BRAND X en route to Europe to be operating with NATO ally permission from a British base at Akrotiri, Cyprus. The U.S. State Department asked countries along the Mediterranean to deny Achille Lauro access to their ports in order to keep it in International Waters. They also sought to keep the press away from the ship to prevent giving the terrorists a worldwide stage.

The Italian Government took a mixed approach. Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini had the military send 60 paratroopers, four helicopters, and experts on the ship's layout to the British base at Akrotiri. Prime Minister Bettino Craxi looked for a diplomatic solution beginning a near-continuous dialogue with every country involved, including the nations with citizens aboard, and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Tunisia.

Italy had called on the PLO to publicly declare whether they had any involvement. In response Yasser Arafat denounced the hijacking and offered to assist in negotiating for a peaceful conclusion to the incident. Arafat sent two men to Egypt to join a joint negotiating team alongside Italians and Egyptians one of his advisors and PLO executive committee member Hani al-Hassan and Abu Abbas. At Port Said, Egypt, these two joined the PLO representative from Cairo Zohdi al-Qoudra. (It is unknown if Arafat was ignorant of Abbas involvement or if he was sent to ensure the incident would end quickly.)

On the morning of Tuesday, October 8, the hijackers began to separate the hostages. They were looking for Jews and Americans, asking for the hostages to identify themselves but meeting refusal. They collected the passports of the passengers and pulled aside 12 Americans and six female British dancers who had been hired as entertainers (originally set to perform in the very lounge they were being held hostage in). Looking at the passports of an elderly couple, the hijackers asked if they were Jewish. Upon hearing that they were, one of the terrorists knocked the man to the floor and repeatedly hit him with the butt of his gun.

The terrorists ordered the 20 separated passengers up the stairs but Leon Klinghoffer's wheelchair could not make the climb and his wife Marilyn refused to abandon him. She was ordered by the terrorists to leave him, when she protested they put a machine gun to her head and ordered her up the stairs. Fellow passenger Anna Scheider offered to take Mr. Klinghoffer but was refused, with one of the hijackers saying "You go! We will take care of him."

On Lido Deck, below the bridge and above the lounge the other hostages were being held on, the separated hostages were forced to lie on the deck. Containers said to contain fuel were placed around them with threats from the terrorists that they would shoot the cans if provoked. One of the terrorists told hostage Evelyn Weltman that if commandos tried a rescue all the hostages would be executed. At this point it became clear to the hostages and Captain De Rosa that one of the four hijackers was their leader twenty-three year-old Youssef Majed Molqi (recruited by Abbas from a crowded Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan).

The Achille Lauro arrived off Tartus at 11:00 a.m. and Molqi broke radio silence. He asked Syrian authorities to allow him to dock the ship at Tartus and demanded that they send someone from the International Red Cross to the ship, along with British and American representatives. He stated that he was with the PLF and demanded that the Israeli Government be contacted and given the demand that 50 Palestinians held in its jails be freed, including specifically Samir Kuntar.

If the prisoners were not released, Molqi said they would begin killing hostages, "We will start executing at 3:00 p.m. sharp." Syria, having consulted with the U.S. and Italian governments, did not respond to any of the demands.

Murder of Leon Klinghoffer
As 3:00 p.m. neared, the terrorists began to decide whom to kill by shuffling the U.S., British, and Austrian hostages' passports. They selected Leon Klinghoffer to be killed first, to be followed by Mildred Hodes.

Several reasons have been put forward that may have contributed to why Klinghoffer was chosen. Earlier in the hijacking, he had refused to be silent when gunmen took his watch and cigarettes, becoming brusque and complaining in his slurred speech which antagonized some of the hijackers though one of them gave Klinghoffer his possessions back. Additionally Klinghoffer was Jewish and American, and his wheelchair made him both hard to move around the ship and meant his extended absence from the main group was less likely to trigger a chain reaction of resistance among the surviving hostages. Molqi later gave a statement on why he was chosen: "I and Bassm [al-Ashker] agreed that the first hostage to be killed had to be an American. I chose Klinghoffer, an invalid, so that they would know that we had no pity for anyone, just as the Americans, arming Israel, do not take into consideration that Israel kills women and children of our people."

Molqi ordered Manuel De Souza, a Portuguese waiter, to accompany him and push Klinghoffer outside onto the open deck. Klinghoffer was taken back along the entire deck of the ship to the stern. Molqi ordered De Souza to return into the ship.

The other terrorists moved the rest of the hostages back down into the lounge. Marilyn Klinghoffer noticed that Leon was not there and began to weep. A hijacker told her that he had been moved to the ship's infirmary due to illness.

Molqi shot Leon Klinghoffer once in the head and again in the chest. He died instantly, toppling onto his face. Molqi then went in and ordered De Souza to throw the body over the side of the ship. When De Souza was unable to do the task alone, Molqi found Italian hairdresser Ferruccio Alberti and forced the two of them at gunpoint to throw the body and then the wheelchair into the sea. Several of the hostages heard the shots and splashes, including Marilyn Klinghoffer. She pleaded with the hijackers to let her see her husband in the infirmary, but they refused. She feared the worst but remained hopeful.

Molqi, with blood splattered clothing, returned to the other terrorists and told them "I have killed the American." He and Bassam al-Ashker then went to the bridge. Handing Klinghoffer's passport to Captain De Rosa, he raised a finger and said "boom, boom." He then handed Mrs. Hodes' passport to him and said "This will be the second one." At that point, De Rosa told them they could kill him instead of the passengers.

Molqi ordered De Rosa to tell the Syrians that a passenger had been killed and that they were prepared to kill another. The Syrians responded by telling Molqi to "go back where you came from." Finding no help in Syria, Molqi ordered De Rosa to sail for Libya.

In an effort to resolve the situation, communications with the hijackers and discussions about their fate took place.

Abbas' interaction
Before Achille Lauro could head towards Libya, Abbas, unable to contact the ship using Egyptian Naval communications, called into Cyprus' Arabic language station Radio Monte Carlo. He, using the name "Abu Khaled" asked the station to broadcast a message to the vessel, instructing the hijackers to return immediately to Port Said and treat the passengers "kindly." Molqi on the bridge with Captain De Rosa was listening to the station and became overjoyed ordering the captain to set course for Port Said at 7:20 p.m., Tuesday, October 8. Following the instructions of Abbas, the Achille Lauro headed back towards Port Said, where it had previously made a tourist stop.

Abbas, still using the name "Abu Khaled," was later able to contact the ship by naval radio from Port Said. Abbas told Majed to treat the passengers well and to apologize to them, the crew, and the captain. He told Majed to tell them that their objective was not to take control of the ship and that their friendship with Italy was "so important that it is unthinkable that any action would be taken against our European friends."

Abbas then spoke to Captain De Rosa; he apologized to him, saying, "We are truly sorry, because we didn't intend to hijack you, but our situation was such that we had to assume control for several hours." De Rosa replied "I am familiar with your situation and I understand it well. We understand the Palestinians, we understand the Palestinian aspirations, and for that reason we are all with you." The radio contact allowed the International community to pinpoint the location of the vessel. The Israelis were able to provide information about Abba's radio discussions with the ship to the Reagan administration and notified them that it was Abbas' faction behind the hijacking. Fearing that the terrorists threat to kill passengers had been followed through, and not wanting a repeat of the TWA Flight 847 terrorist incident where the administration looked impotent to act, the American special forces staged in Cyprus were ordered to make preparations to storm the vessel.

Government discussions
That afternoon, Maxwell M. Rabb, U.S. ambassador to Italy, advised Prime Minister Craxi of the U.S. intention to mount a military assault on the vessel, after Italy had already weighed taking the same action. Craxi protested, saying the ship was Italian, and therefore only Italy should act and that there was no confirmation of any killings. He maintained that negotiations for the release of the ship seemed possible. He relayed that in response to his inquires the Egyptians had told him that no one had been killed. The Egyptian Government began to conduct negotiations through the medium of PLO representative Muhammed "Abu" Abbas.

By Tuesday evening, the PLO began seeking to have the hijackers turned over to them should they surrender. Arafat had Abbas communicate to Italian Prime Minister Craxi that the hijackers promised to release unharmed all the passengers and to drop demands for the release of prisoners. Arafat, through Abbas, also got Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to pledge to turn over the hijackers to the PLO in Tunis for prosecution.

The PLF issued a statement from Nicosia, Cyprus apologizing to the passengers for the hijacking, "The aim of the operation was not to hijack the ship or its passengers, or any civilian of any nationality. The operation was likewise not aimed against states that are friendly to our people and their cause. ... [The mission was to] travel on an ordinary sea journey to Ashdod harbor in occupied Palestine, from where our comrades were to proceed to a specified Israeli military target, as a reply to the war of extermination and terrorism against them and to avenge the martyrs of the Israeli raid on Tunis. Our comrades were compelled to take control of the ship before reaching the specified target. We wish to mention that the course toward Arab ports was the result of the situation and the confusion into which the squad fell."

At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, October 8 the Achille Lauro anchored off Port Said. While the hostages remained in the lounge, a small boat approached the ship. Molqi descended to speak with the new arrivals which included Abu Abbas and Hani al-Hassan.

Speaking with the support of both the Egyptian and Italian officials, Abbas and Hassan began talking to the hijackers giving the appearance of real negotiations. The PLO hailed the incident as successful negotiations and took credit for it. Hassan notified Arafat of the talk and Arafat called Italian Prime Minister Craxi midday Wednesday. Arafat told him that the hijackers would release the captives if two demands were met, that the ambassadors from U.S., Italy, West Germany, and Great Britain visit the ship, then the hijackers be given safe passage off the ship.

Italian ambassador Giovanni Migliuolo asked the other ambassadors to accompany him on a helicopter flight to Port Said in order to speak to the hijackers. U.S. ambassador to Egypt Nicholas A. Veliotes refused, saying it would give the hijackers the media platform they wanted and that more importantly the U.S. policy was not to negotiate with terrorists.

While the diplomats were reviewing their options the Egyptian foreign minister Abdel Meguid telephoned and asked them to report to his office. There he proposed a new offer the hostages would be released if the four governments promised not to pursue the hijackers. The ambassadors told him that they could not commit to that without consulting with their governments. Meguid loaned each an office and telephone. He demanded an answer in twenty minutes, the ambassadors ignored his deadline and began discussing the matter with their governments. The American and British ambassadors informed Meguid that their governments refused, repeating their policies of not negotiating with terrorists.

By Wednesday morning, the Reagan administration had implemented a plan for the Achille Lauro to be liberated by the U.S. military that evening. SEAL Team Six embarked on board the USS Iwo Jima an Amphibious assault ship which then steamed for Port Said. It was decided that the raid would go ahead as long as the ship was in international waters, but would be put on hold if it was found in Egyptian waters.

At mid-afternoon Wednesday, a ship-to-shore radio broadcast was made by Captain De Rosa, "I am the captain. I am speaking from my office, and my officers and everybody is in good health." It was later discovered that De Rosa had made this false claim because Molqi was holding a gun to his head.

Hijackers disembark
Citing De Rosa's broadcast the Egyptian foreign minister met again with the four ambassadors urging them to accept a transfer of the hijackers to PLO control rather than seeking their arrest. Veliotes refused, holding that even without any murders the terrorists must be arrested for the hijacking itself. The British ambassador also refused to sign-off on the proposal. The Italian ambassador embraced the agreement, and the West German ambassador offered general but undefined support. The split positions was enough for the Egyptian government, and Foreign Minister Meguid informed Abbas and Hassan that the hijackers could leave the ship. Captain De Rosa told the passengers that the Palestinians had told him to relay an apology and the message that they had never intended to hijack the ship, "They had an assignment to do something in Israel."

At 5:00 p.m., the four Palestinian hijackers left the ship being taken ashore by the Egyptians in a tugboat. The terrorists waved goodbye to the former hostages, who applauded in relief at finding themselves freed. A crowd of Egyptian civilians ashore burst into cheers for the hijackers as they came into view of land, "Fedayeen, fedayeen, Allah akbar!" ("The guerrillas, the guerrillas, God is great!" ). British Journalist Robert Fisk reported from the shore that one could see a streak down the side of the vessel, which turned out to be Klinghoffer's blood.

As soon as the hijackers left the ship Marilyn Klinghoffer rushed to the infirmary looking for Leon. Not finding him the staff informed her to ask the captain who was still on the bridge. Klinghoffer climbed the steps on the infirmary's level near the bottom of the ship, all the way to the bridge near the top of the vessel. Captain De Rosa informed her of her husband's murder. Klinghoffer collapsed uncontrollably sobbing, friends helped her to her cabin.

Freed hostages from Achille Lauro returning to the US by military aircraft

De Rosa received a call from Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti in Rome. He confirmed that he had regained control of the ship but inexplicably relayed that all of the passengers were well. Andreotti informed Craxi who was about to have a new conference on the successful conclusion of the situation. Craxi decided that it was best to double check the condition of the passengers and called De Rosa who finally admitted the murder of Leon Klinghoffer. Craxi altered his prepared remarks and at the new conference the world learned from him of the murder for the first time. The Klinghoffer's daughters and friends in New York had been celebrating the previous news which claimed all the hostages were safe, were contacted by the New York Times which had a reporter at the Craxi press conference, and informed of the death of their father and friend turning their joy into despair.

American ambassador Nicholas Vliotes boarded the Achille Lauro to confirm Craxi's information about Klinghoffer's death. He found De Rosa distraught, learned that Molqi had held the gun to his head during the ship-to-shore communication that claimed all the hostages were healthy. De Rosa in tears handed the ambassador Klinghoffer's passport. Veliotes called the American embassy with the ship-to-shore radio to give orders "Leon Klinghoffer was murdered by the terrorists off of Tartus when they were trying to get the attention of the Syrians. In my name, I want you to call the [Egyptian] foreign minister, tell him what we learned, tell him the circumstances, tell him in view of this and the fact that we and presumably them didn't have those facts, we insist that they prosecute those sons of bitches."

The American passengers of the Achille Lauro, having been held hostage for 51 hours, were taken by a U.S. military aircraft back to America on October 12, 1985. The aircraft had flown out of Rhein-Main Air Base, West Germany and stopped back there for refueling when heading to America from Egypt.

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Reply 35 Years Ago Today; MS Achille Lauro is hijacked- American Leon Klinghoffer is subsequently murdered (Original post)
Dennis Donovan Oct 7 OP
rickford66 Oct 7 #1
Dennis Donovan Oct 7 #2

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Oct 7, 2020, 08:56 AM

1. My late wife sailed on this ship around 1963. Originally the MS Willem Ruys.

Sailed from England, through the Med and Suez to New Zealand. Very formal dinning etc. Women wearing white gloves etc. Quite an experience for a young lady. This hijacking left a deep impression on many of us as an early terrorist attack.

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Response to rickford66 (Reply #1)

Wed Oct 7, 2020, 09:17 AM

2. Sadly, she burned and sank 9 years later


Later years, fire, and sinking

The ship continued in service; she was re-flagged in 1987 when the Lauro Line was taken over by the Mediterranean Shipping Company to become "StarLauro". On 30 November 1994, she caught fire off the coast of Somalia while en route to South Africa, with 979 passengers and crew on board. At that time, Italian officials said the fire had been caused by a discarded cigarette, but it actually began in the engine room after one of the boilers exploded. Because of a lack of supervision, the fire burned out of control before its discovery. The crew tried to battle the fire for several hours but were unsuccessful. The vessel was abandoned, and during transfer to rescue ships, including USS Halyburton, four died and eight were wounded. Achille Lauro sank two days later on 2 December 1994 and the wreck has not been located.

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