The hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro reaches a dramatic climax when U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercept an Egyptian airliner attempting to fly the Palestinian hijackers to freedom and force the jet to land at a NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily. American and Italian troops surrounded the plane, and the terrorists were taken into Italian custody. On 7 October, four heavily armed Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt.
Some 320 crew members and 80 passengers, were taken hostage. Hundreds of other passengers had disembarked the cruise ship earlier that day to visit Cairo and tour the Egyptian pyramids. Their original plan had been to slip into Israel, but they were surprised by a crewman while cleaning their weapons, thus they had to act prematurely. Identifying themselves as members of the Palestine Liberation Front, the gunmen demanded the 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.
The Achille Lauro travelled to the Syrian port of Tartus, where they were refused permission to anchor in its waters, prompting 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. Yassir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) condemned the hijacking, and PLO officials joined with Egyptian authorities in attempting to resolve the crisis.
On the recommendation of the negotiators, the cruise ship travelled to Port Said. On 9 October, the hijackers agreed to free the hostages in exchange for a pledge of safe passage to an undisclosed destination. The next day, 10 October, the four hijackers boarded an EgyptAir Boeing 737 airliner, along with Mohammed Abbas, a member of the Palestine Liberation Front who had participated in the negotiations; a PLO official; and several Egyptians. The 737 took off from Cairo at 4:15 p.m. EST and headed for Tunisia. President Ronald Reagan gave his final order approving the plan to intercept the aircraft, and at 5:30 p.m. EST, F-14 Tomcat fighters located the airliner 80 miles south of Crete.
Without announcing themselves, the F-14s trailed the airliner as it sought and was denied permission to land at Tunis. After a request to land at the Athens airport was likewise refused, the F-14s turned on their lights and flew wing-to-wing with the airliner. The aircraft was ordered to land at a NATO air base in Sicily, and the pilot complied, touching down at 6:45 p.m. The hijackers were arrested soon after. Abbas and the other Palestinian were either released or allowed to escape, prompting criticism from the United States, which wanted to investigate their possible involvement in the hijacking. On 10 July 1986, an Italian court later convicted three of the terrorists and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from 15 to 30 years.
Three others, including Mohammed Abbas, were convicted in absentia for masterminding the hijacking and sentenced to life in prison. They received harsher penalties because, unlike the hijackers, who the court found were acting for "patriotic motives," Abbas and the others conceived the hijacking as a "selfish political act" designed "to weaken the leadership of Yassir Arafat." The fourth hijacker was a minor who was tried and convicted separately. The Achille Lauro is also a noted case in public international law as it not only led to the drafting of the 1988 Rome Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation governing the apprehension, conviction and punishment of maritime hijackers, it also re-raised the tricky question of jurisdiction to prosecute in international law.
The Achille Lauro incident sparked off diplomatic rows and tension between all the parties involved: the United States, whose citizen was murdered; the Egyptians whose airliner was carrying the terrorists and where the Achille Lauro was anchored; and the Italians, as it was an Italian company that owned the registration of the Achille Lauro, and whose base it was where the terrorists were arrested. All claimed a right to prosecute.