In a tale reminiscent of a Hollywood flick that even the most creative studio executives could not have made up: Sigonella Crisis of 1985. A story that has everything from hijacking, hostages, American special forces, US military jets chasing after passenger planes to a diplomatic crisis that threatened to become confrontational especially among two NATO allies. Most of the information is scanty and is gleaned from news reports from the time.
The year is 1985 president Regan occupies the Whitehouse on the other side of the world Palestine was still to free themselves from Israeli control. There were two main groups at the time advancing the Palestinian cause the Palestinian Liberation Organization(PLO) and Palestinian Liberation Front(PLF), the latter being an armed splinter group of the PLO.
The Achille Lauro was a cruise ship owned by the Italian government and on October of 1985 was taking tourists to Egypt. Four hijackers had boarded the ship and it is reported they managed to smuggle weapons on board due to lax security measures of the time. Their initial plan was to wait for the ship to arrive in Israel in order to launch their attack but had to change their plan when a crew member found them cleaning their weapons. Apparently they had smuggled their weapons inside fuel tank of a car.
The hijacking of Achille Lauro.
The hijackers having been discovered panicked and instead decided to hijack the ship. The majority of passengers had disembarked and were touring the pyramids, the ship itself was left with 97 passengers who would become hostages and a crew of 450. the captain of the ship later spoke of how the hijackers had lied about being 20 but he later discovered they only 4. The hijackers sent their demands and were received by the US government, to show they were serious they decided to kill a hostage. Leon Klinghoffer was an American of Jewish decent and was confined to a wheelchair, it is speculated that all these are factors contributed to his death, however, the world only learnt about his death much later.
The hijacking was creating a different problem, the Americans wanted to launch a military assault on the ship but it was owned by the Italians, who too wanted to storm it but instead opted for negotiations. The PLO wanting to win favour with the international community decided to intervene to have the hijackers release the hostages and surrender to them. The Egyptian and Italian governments supported this move. The negotiations were led by a man named Abbas a representative of the PLO.
It was finally agreed that the passengers would be released and the Egyptians would deliver the hijackers to the PLO. The hijackers stepped off the ship to heroes welcome by a crowd of Egyptians. While the former hostages celebrated their release, Marilyn Klinghoffer found out his husband had been shot dead.
The revelation of the murder of Klinghoffer threw a new spin to the whole scenario. The Italian government wanted arrest the hijackers since the murder had been committed on their ship, the US wanted to arrest them since they had killed their citizen. The Egyptians did not want to be seen favouring the West by arresting the hijackers, a move that would have antagonized its Arab neighbours nor did it want to seem to be sympathising with the hijackers, so it acted quickly to have the hijackers out its territory.
Intercept of passenger plane.
The American government desperately tried to get the Egyptians to handover the hijackers to them but the hijackers had already boarded a plane and were on their way to Tunisia. This led to one of the most dramatic scenes ever. American intelligence services concluded the plane would fly over the Mediterranean and with help from US navy jets they could locate the plane and force it to land in their NATO base Sigonella, Italy. Even with the most sophisticated techonology of the time it was not easy to locate a passenger plane over the Mediterranean since there were other planes in the air at the time.
USS Saratoga, a US aircraft carrier was in the vicinity at the time and dispatched several planes including F-14s, E-2s, A-6 Intruders, EA-6Bs and electronic intelligence air-crafts. One of the fighter pilots is quoted saying the night time intercept was particularly dangerous since they had to move very close to an aircraft mid air to verify if its the actual plane they were after. Also in the air at the time were US special forces who had been mobilised earlier to rescue the hostages.
The Egyptian plane carrying the hijackers was finally intercepted without the pilot realizing, he tried to land in different airports but was denied permission, meanwhile more fighter planes were sent to escort the plane. All this while the occupants of the Egyptian flight were unaware of what was going on outside. The US planes then radioed the pilot and ordered him to fly to Italy which he refused, that is when the American fighter jets revealed themselves by illuminating their landing lights which had been off. At the sight of the jets the pilot complied yet this was far from over.
The Sigonella Incident.
The landing of the plane was building to another monumental incident of the day. As soon as the plane touched down it was surrounded by members of US special forces who had the intention of storming the plane to capture the hijackers. American forces soon found themselves surrounded by Italian military personnel and staring down their barrels, a Mexican stand off began. 80 American operatives from Seal Team 6 and Delta Force were surrounded by 300 Italians from different military branches and their prime minister had ordered further reinforcements.
It took a phone call between president Regan and Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi to defuse tensions. America agreed to stand down and let the hijackers be tried in Italy. The American commander on the ground was quoted saying that a mistake would lead to a gunfight and was only worried that it lead to a lot of losses on the Italian side but above all their main objective was the capture of the hijackers. That would have been enough drama for the day but there was still one more showdown in store.
The show down.
The four hijackers having been handed to Italian authorities, the Egyptian passenger aircraft was released but America was concern after finding out there were PLF members onboard, furthermore Abbas, the negotiator had been implicated by US as the mastermind of the hijacking. Members of the US special forces boarded a business jet of the Navy and planned to follow the Egyptian plane, they were denied permission to take off but did so anyway. This being a violation of Italian airspace the prime minister ordered his air force to intercept the American plane. Four Italian fighter jets pursuing the Americans found themselves chased by US Navy fighter planes and had trouble with their radar.
As the Egyptian plane approached Rome the US Navy planes had to turn back or risk being shot down, an order the Italian president has issued if the Americans continued the air violations. The plane carrying the special forces continued since it faked an in-flight emergency by which it was granted automatic landing rights bringing an end to the day’s circus, leaving only the issue of Abbas unresolved. While the US and Italy were negotiating whether to charge him he boarded a plane to Yugoslavia and escaped bringing the whole ordeal to an end.
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