U.S. Navy SEALs and the Achille Lauro Mission

THE ACHILLE LAURO MISSIONThe MS Achille Lauro was a cruise ship based in Naples, Italy. On October 7, 1985 four heavily armed Palestinian terrorists hijacked the ship in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. Some 320 crewmembers and 80 passengers were taken hostage. Identifying themselves as members of the Palestine Liberation Front–a Palestinian splinter group–the gunmen demanded release of 50 Palestinian militants imprisoned in Israel. If their demands were not met, they threatened to blow up the ship and kill the 11 Americans on board. The next morning, they also threatened to kill the British passengers. At this juncture, highly trained U.S. Navy SEAL assault forces were launched from the U.S. to capture or kill the terrorists before they could harm any of the Achille Lauro passengers or crew.

The Achille Lauro traveled to the Syrian port of Tartus, where the terrorists demanded negotiations on October 8. Syria refused to permit the ship to anchor in its waters, which prompted more threats from the hijackers. That afternoon, they shot and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old Jewish-American, who was confined to a wheelchair as the result of a stroke. His body was then pushed overboard in the wheelchair. The ship then headed back towards Port Said, where, after two days of negotiations, the hijackers agreed to abandon the ship and surrendered to the Egyptians in exchange for safe passage Tunisia.

On 10 October, the four hijackers boarded an EgyptAir Boeing 737 airliner, which took off from Cairo and headed for Tunisia. U.S. Navy 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 the U.S. Navy SEAL assault force was also trailing behind them and the F-14s in two U.S. 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.

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 U.S. 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.

On July 10, 1986, an Italian court convicted three of the terrorists and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 15 to 30 years. The fourth hijacker was a minor that was tried and convicted separately.

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