Political sources said on Tuesday that Mohammad Ali Hammadi, convicted of killing Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem during the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight diverted to Beirut and sentenced to life without parole, was flown back to the Lebanese capital last week .
Diplomatic sources in Germany confirmed Hammadi's release but the German Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
Hammadi, now in his late 30s, was captured in 1987 and all attempts to have him exchanged with German hostages held in Lebanon in the late 1980s and early 1990s failed.
Hammadi's brother, Abdul-Hadi, was a senior security official of Hizbollah at the time.
News of his release could anger Washington as it had indicted him for Stethem's murder and had asked Berlin to extradite him to the United States if ever he was to be freed.
Hammadi's release occurred a few days before German hostage Susanne Osthoff was freed in Iraq. The archaeologist had disappeared on Nov. 25. Germany said on Sunday she was in safe custody. She has made no public statement since.
A Lebanese source said a senior German intelligence officer visited Damascus early this month but did not disclose the purpose of the trip. Syria is a key backer of Hezbollah.
The U.S. embassy in Berlin had no immediate comment on Hammadi's release. But several diplomatic sources there said Washington would not be pleased with Germany's action and that it could complicate relations between the two countries.
A German government official told Reuters that any suggestion of a connection between Osthoff's and Hammadi's release was "completely absurd".
A German court convicted Hammadi in 1989 of murder, air piracy and other crimes for his role in the June 1985 hijacking of the TWA passenger jet that was diverted to Beirut and Algiers and sentenced him to life in prison.
His sentence is one Germany reserves for the most serious and cruel crimes. It is difficult but not impossible to release someone who receives such a sentence after 15 years.
Stethem, a native of Waldorf, Maryland, was based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, at the time of the hijacking.
Hammadi's other brother, Abbas Ali, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for plotting the kidnapping of two Germans in Lebanon in the hope of forcing the release of his brother. He was released from jail after serving his term. (Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau in Berlin)
Background information on TWA Flight 847
Trans World Airlines Flight 847 was hijacked on Friday June 14, 1985, while flying from Athens to Rome. Piloted by Captain John Testrake, the Boeing 727 departed at 10:10 am, carrying 153 passengers and crew, including flight engineer Benjamin C. Zimmerman, co-pilot Philip G. Maresca, and flight attendant Uli Derickson.
It was commandeered shortly after takeoff by two men who had smuggled pistols and grenades through the Athens airport security. A third hijacker, Ali Atwa, was bumped from the flight and was later arrested.
The plane stopped for several hours at Beirut, where 19 passengers were allowed to leave in exchange for fuel. The aircraft continued on to Algiers where 20 passengers were released during a five-hour stop, before heading back to Beirut. At the time, Lebanon was experiencing civil war, and Beirut was divided into sectors with different militia controlling different areas.
The Beirut International Airport, surrounded by a Shiite neighborhood, had no perimeter security and nearby residents could simply drive onto the runway.
During this stop, the hijackers identified an American Navy diver, Robert Stethem, among the passengers. They beat him, shot him in the right temple, and dumped his body out of the plane onto the tarmac. Several passengers with Jewish-sounding names were taken off the plane, but not released. Nearly a dozen armed men joined the hijackers before the plane returned to Algiers where an additional 65 passengers were released. It again returned to Beirut, landing on Sunday afternoon, and remained here.
The Greek government released the accomplice Ali Atwa and in exchange, the hijackers released eight Greek citizens. One of the passengers was Demis Roussos, a Greek folk singer.
The initial demands of the hijackers included the release of all Shiites captured by Israel in Lebanon, international condemnation of Israeli military activity in southern Lebanon, condemnation of U.S. actions in the Middle East, and condemnation of the March 8, 1985, car bombing in the Beirut suburb of Bir al Abed. Rumors in Beirut suggested that the car bombing, which killed 80 people, was linked to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
By Monday afternoon, June 17, most of the hostages had been taken from the plane to a secure location. The 40 remaining hostages were protected by Nabih Berri, a moderate Shiite leader of the Amal militia. He was also an official in the fractured Lebanon government. One of the hostages was released when he developed heart trouble, the other 39 remained captive until June 30, when they were driven to Syria, boarded a U.S. Air Force plane, and flew to West Germany.
Israel released most of the prisoners within a month after the hijacking ended. They stated that the release was unrelated to the hijacking and had long been planned.
One of the hijackers, Mohammed Ali Hammadi, was arrested two years later in Frankfurt, Germany. He was tried and convicted of Stethem's murder and is serving a life sentence in Germany. On October 10, 2001, three of the alleged hijackers, Imad Mugniyah, Ali Atwa, and Hassan Izz-Al-Din were placed on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list. Rewards of $25 million for information leading to their arrests and convictions are currently being offered by the United States.
Stewardess Uli Derickson was widely credited with calming the hijackers and saving the lives of many passengers.
Picture: Two hijackers in the cockpit with Captain Testrake
Source: Wikipedia, Reuters, Ya Libnan
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