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Behind Bars, Abbas Awaits His Fate

Abul Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian group that killed an American on the hijacked cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985, is shown in this April 22, 1987 file photo. Abbas has been captured in Baghdad, U.S. officials said Tuesday, April 15, 2003.
AP
Helicopters roared over at dawn, and a few minutes later an explosion shattered the windows of the Faoud family home. For the next two hours, gunfire rattled around their one-story house; a desperate man tried to find haven by smashing his way inside.

When it was over, American troops had grabbed one of the world's most wanted men — Mohammed Abbas, better known as Abul Abbas and mastermind of the 1985 cruise ship hijacking during which 69-year-old Leon Klinghoffer was slain.

For the Faouds, the arrest was a revelation: No one knew the man down the street was anything more than an Arab volunteer fighting coalition forces, they said. "I didn't know who Abul Abbas was," said Ghada Butti, wife of Khaled Fouad. "I have never heard of him before."

On Wednesday, she and other neighbors provided a detailed account of the firefight Tuesday morning that led to the capture of the head of the Palestine Liberation Front, a tiny pro-Iraqi faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The family was asleep when the helicopters swooped in at a low altitude, awakening everyone. Minutes later, the Faouds jumped from their beds, shocked by a window-shattering explosion, followed by two more blasts.

Abbas was apparently hiding in one of the houses in alley No. 6 at al-Hurriya Square. Gunfire continued for more that two hours as he and his followers tried to escape the U.S. raiders.

Butti recalled hearing somebody in her garden trying to break through a window in her children's room. Minutes later, someone pounded frantically at the main door.

"I asked in English, `Who's there?"' she recounted, saying she expected American troops to answer. "Khaled then opened the door for a few seconds, then closed it when he did not find anyone outside."

Neighbors said they believed Abbas was caught after taking refuge in an abandoned house.

After Fouad closed the door, loudspeakers boomed out a message in Arabic:

"'Caution, caution, caution. Abul Abbas, surrender. Coalition special forces have surrounded the area. Follow the instructions and move forward toward the voice. Raise your hands up and walk slowly. We will not harm you. Think about your family,"' Butti remembered it as saying.

The message, played repeatedly, terrified her. "I was afraid they might have thought we were his family, and they were about to storm our house," she said.

A little more than two hours after the helicopters came, Americans soldiers stormed the family's garden gate and approached the main door. Screaming "help, help," Butti let them inside.

The soldiers told the family not to worry but asked them to leave the house as they searched every room. Her husband and two male neighbors were taken for "two hours of interrogation," Butti said. More than 24 hours later, none had returned.

At the house next door, Zareh Krekorian was one of those taken away. Krekorian's wife, Hermenah, took a reporter from room to room, showing smashed windows and broken locks left by the Americans' search. The main door was so badly damaged that she had to summon workers to build a wall to keep thieves out.

Butti's eldest daughter, Hind, told of seeing a bloodied body in an olive green uniform dangling from the garden wall. She did not know if the man was an American or an Abbas follower.

U.S. soldiers also came around showing a picture of Abbas and asking neighbors if they had seen him, Butti said. She did not recognize him. Another announcement in Arabic followed, with the promise of a reward for information about Abbas.

Later, an American gave Butti and her children a box filled with 12 meals. "I don't want food," she said she told the soldier. "I want my husband back."

American troops stayed in the area for about three hours after the shooting stopped, she said.

Palestinian officials close to Abbas' organization said Wednesday that he twice tried to flee Iraq through Syria after the war started but was turned away.

The Palestinian Authority demanded Abbas' release, saying the arrest violated a 1995 interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Rome, Justice Minister Roberto Castelli said Italy would seek Abbas' extradition. U.S. and Italian officials are meeting Thursday on the fate of Abbas, captured by U.S. troops in Iraq.

Abbas had been convicted in absentia in an Italian court for the hijacking and sentenced to life in prison in 1986.

U.S. officials would not disclose their plans for Abbas.

"This idea that a man who in fact ordered the execution of an old man could somehow escape justice is not an idea we can honor," Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern affairs at Johns Hopkins University, told CBS News. "It's really an argument and a whole new world that terror will not go unpunished."

Butti, who lives a few hundred yards from the heavily bombed Air Force Command, said the raid was the most frightening part of the war for her.

"We did not feel at all that we will stay alive," she said, standing next to her 2-year-old son, Faysal. "We surrendered to death that day ... After we survived all these wars, we were about to die in the battle of Abul Abbas."