Tuesday, May 02, 2006

US-Libya ties under threat

FAMILIES of 13 of the 20 people killed during an attempted hijacking of an American plane in Karachi, Pakistan in 1986 has filed a $10 billion case against Libya at a court in Washington, and this could have serious impact on Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi's efforts to rehabilitate himself and become a staunch ally of the US.
The attempted hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi on Sept,5, 1986, was blamed on the Palestinian group led by the notorious Abu Nidal (real name Sabri Al Banna). The five hijackers were captured and sentenced to jail terms in Pakistan.
Pakistan released one of the five, identified as Zaid Hassan Safarini, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, in late 2003, and, according to reports, US agents caught him after his release and took him to the US. In May 2004 he was sentenced again in the US to three consecutive life terms in prison under US law because American nationals were among those killed during the attempted hijack.
During his trial in the US, Safarini implicated Libya as the sponsor of the foiled hijack.
Among the evidence in the case was Bulgarian handgrenades in possession of the Karachi would-be hijackers were identified as having come from the same batch and source as handgrenades that Turkish police seized from four Libyans arrested in Ankara in 1985. Similar handgrenades were also found to have been used in the December 1985 attacks on El Al ticket counters at the Rome and Vienna airports. The attacks were claimed by the Abu Nidal group.
Again, yet another "evidence" cited in the case, filed by law firm Crowell & Moring representing the plaintiffs in the Washington case, is a statement made by an Abu Nidal guerrilla named Ali Rezaq, who was among the hijackers of an Egyptian airline in November 1985.
The hijack was particularly brutal since the hijackers shot five passengers in the head and dumped their bodies on the tarmac during that affair. Two of the five survived.
In his statement, Ali Rezaq said that a Libyan official had held meetings with him on two separate occasions regarding the planned hijacking. "The second meeting took place in a location where access was permitted only for diplomats . . . Only because of what the Libyan government official said and did was it possible for the hijacking to take place," according to Ali Rezaq.
A summary report prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) states that Libya provided "substantial material support for the Abu Nidal Organisation, assisting with funds, facilities, apartments, airline tickets, free entry and exit of members of the Abu Nidal Organisation, use of its 'diplomatic pouch' and diplomatic freight privileges, official documents of all kinds, and actual operational assistance in pre-positioning of people and supplies for the conduct of operations.”
The case comes at a highly sensitive point in US-Libyan relations. The Bush administration would not have wanted the lawsuit after having jailed Safarini to 160 years (three life terms (35 years each) plus 25 years). It has promised to help Libya, a one-time enemy, rehabilitate itself. However, it might not have a choice.
Libya, long an avowed enemy of the US, co-operated with the US after the invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and gave up its programmes of WMD and also paid compensation to the families of the 270 victims of the 1988 downing of another American airplane over Scotland. US-Libyan relations have improved considerably, and now Libya wants itself to be removed by the US State Department's list of "sponsors of state terrorism."
An American of Indian origin, Prabhat Krishnaswamy of Columbus, Ohio, was on the jet and whose father, Seetharamiah, was killed, is one of the lead plaintiffs in the Washington case.
The other four hijackers are still in Pakistani jails. The lawsuit seeks $10 billion in compensatory damages, as well as unspecified punitive damages, from Libya, Muammar Qadhafi, and the five hijackers.


The hijackers had intended to fly the jumbo jet to Israel and crash it into the city of Tel Aviv. However, the pilots were alerted to the attack by the crew, and were able to escape by climbing out of the cockpit using emergency ropes. Without pilots, the hijackers could not get the aircraft off the ground.
The result was a 16-hour drama of killings and torture. The hijackers demanded that all passengers produce their passports, several crew members hid the passports of the Americans to protect those passengers who were the immediate targets. During the tense hours inside the large aircraft, the hijackerd shot and killed American/Indian Surendra Patel, and trhough his body out of the plane's door onto the tarmac, and threatened to kill another passenger every ten minutes if their demands were not met. As the aircraft's power failed and the lights went out, the hijackers recited a martyrdom prayer, opened fire on the passengers with automatic weapons at point blank range, and threw hand grenades into the tightly packed group. In addition to the 20 passengers and crew who were killed, including Krishanaswamy, many more were severely maimed, blinded, or disfigured by bullets, grenades, and shrapnel. Several victims broke their legs and arms when they hit the tarmac after jumping from the doors to escape the bullets and explosives.
The five hijackers were convicted by the Pakistani courts for their roles in the attack. The leader of the hijackers on the plane, Zaid Safarini, was captured by the FBI when he was released from prison in Pakistan, and was brought to the United States for trial. On December 16, 2003, Safarini entered a guilty plea in Washington, D.C. federal district court and was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences plus 25 years, which he is serving in a Colorado federal prison. The four other hijackers remain in Pakistani jails, and the United States has attempted to extradite them for prosecution in Washington.