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the early afternoon of October 7, 1985, a member of the crew on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro bumped into four passengers who clearly had something to hide. After an argument, the four weird passengers took off some automatic firearms and injured a member of the crew. At that point, they had no choice but to hijack the cruise ship. They were terrorists from the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), which was headed by Abu Nidal. There were 201 passengers and 344 members of the crew on board. Afterward, it would have been found out that their target wasn’t the cruise ship, but instead the city of Ashdod in Israel, where the cruise ship had a scheduled stopover.

Italy Wanted a Negotiation, USA Did Not

The crew succeeded in sending out a Mayday call, which was heard in Sweden. The terrorists claimed the release of fifty Palestinian prisoners in Israel in exchange for the life of the ship’s passengers. Giulio Andreotti, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, got in touch with Hafiz al-Asad, the Syrian dictator, in order to make him a mediator. Al-Asad succeeded in convincing the terrorists to change course and to enter into Egyptian waters.

Andreotti and Bettino Craxi, who was the then Italian Prime Minister, were willing to negotiate with the terrorists, as any dramatic incident had to be avoided. The problem was that Ronald Reagan, the then American President, denied any possibility of a deal with the terrorists. This is the reason why, in those circumstances, the American secret services didn’t help the Italian ones by sharing the information they had. The situation was in a stalemate, but the terrorists wanted to move away from it. As a consequence, the Palestinians threatened the Governments involved saying that they would have started to kill the passengers, one every three minutes. They would have begun with the American ones.

Bettino Craxi in a picture taken in 1987 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro Ended in Egypt

Abu Abbas, founder and leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) convinced the terrorists to dock at Port Said, in Egypt. The Palestinians would have been given immunity in exchange for the passenger’s release. The solution was supported by the Italian Government but strongly opposed by the American one. The hijacking ended three days after its beginning. Egyptian, Italian and American authorities got on the ship in order to find out what exactly happened. The hijacking was over, but an international incident was on its way.

The Macabre Discovery of the Murder of an American Passenger

Onboard, it was discovered that Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jew, had been killed. In the meantime, an aircraft took off from Egypt towards Tunisia, where the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was settled at the time, with the four terrorists aboard. Ronald Reagan was informed about the murder and soon ordered the American armed forces in the area to skyjack the Egyptian aircraft and bring it to the American airbase in Sigonella, Sicily.

Michael Ledeen, a consultant for the CIA, got in touch with Craxi and informed him about the state of affairs. Craxi just asked “Why in Italy?”, and the American answered:

“Because of your perfect weather, your wonderful cooking and the cultural tradition that Sicily may offer.”

Ronald Reagan in 1981 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sigonella’s Crisis

Craxi accepted to give the Americans the authorization to land in Sigonella, but as long as the management of the consequences would have been of Italian competence. At midnight on October, 11, the aircraft landed with the prisoners on board. Fifty Italian soldiers surrounded it. They were under Italian jurisdiction as they committed crimes on an Italian ship, Craxi thought. Some Delta Force’s soldiers rushed around the aircraft and surrounded the Italians holding weapons. The Americans decided to turn all the airport’s lights off. It was a dramatic moment. A few moments later, other members of the Italian armed forces gathered in the airport and surrounded the Americans. The moment was even more dramatic.

A Dramatic Night

After five hours of stalemate, in which Craxi and Reagan had more than an argument, further Italian armed forces arrived at the airport. At that moment, the American authorities decided to leave the Palestinian terrorists to the Italians. The international incident had come to an end, but from that moment onwards, Craxi wouldn’t have been a nice ally for the Americans anymore.

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