Remembering the Sigonella Crisis – Wanted in Rome

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Sigonella when Italy stood up to the United States.

The recent chaotic withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks commemorate the country’s long history of strained diplomatic relations in the Middle East. Italy has been a US ally in the war on terror for many years, but there were five hours in 1985 when it did not.

This armed stalemate between the two NATO allies is known today as the “Sigonella crisis”.

On October 7, the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro docked in Cairo, Egypt, so that its passengers could explore the pyramids. A waiter discovered four heavily armed members of the Palestinian Liberation Front in a cabin. The terrorists had planned to carry out an attack in Israel later on the ship’s voyage, but since that plan was derailed by their early detection, they launched an impromptu kidnapping of the Achille Lauro. 200 people on board were taken hostage and the terrorists announced their demand that the Israeli government release 50 Palestinian prisoners immediately.

The Achille Lauro ship

The PLF was the terrorist branch of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, who claimed the PLO was not involved in the kidnapping and offered diplomatic assistance. The US also offered aid in the form of military aid, but the Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi refused and favored negotiations in cooperation with Arafat, whom the US mistrusted.

The situation escalated dramatically when one of the hijackers murdered a passenger on board the ship on October 8. The victim was an American – a 69-year-old Jewish man named Leon Klinghoffer. Allegedly ignorant of the killing, Egypt, Italy and the PLO were involved in negotiations that resulted in the provision of a plane to deliver the four terrorists to the PLO.

The Achille Lauro docked in Egyptian waters and the terrorists were put on an Egyptian civil flight. On October 9, news of Klinghoffer’s assassination spread in the ears of Americans, and special forces intervened when the United States learned that one of its citizens had been killed.

Leon Klinghoffer

Leon Klinghoffer

US warplanes intercepted Egyptian Flight 747 with the four hijackers, two PLO negotiators, an Egyptian ambassador and Egyptian security, forcing it to land at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, with the landing clearance given by Italians (after Craxi received an inquiry from President Ronald Reagan).

The Egyptian flight landed with US forces right behind it. But when the US forces tried to arrest the four terrorists, the Italian forces took an opposite stance.

A US administration official told the New York Times that their intent was to put the hijackers on a plane and take off for the United States. “The Italian commander objected,” they said. “We surrounded the plane and then the Italians surrounded us.”

As a result, at an Italian air base that normally housed the United States’ armed forces – a facility approved by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that united Italy and the United States in a substantial alliance – the countries were in an armed stalemate. And Italian Troops were authorized to use lethal force if that meant preventing US forces from taking the kidnappers.

Italy had good reasons to refuse to allow the US to arrest the terrorists. Under international law, a ship was subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the state under whose flag it sails, which means that Klinghoffer’s assassination, even though he was a US citizen, was subject only to Italian authority (Article 92 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea). from 1982).

The United States acted on a tenacious anti-terrorist ideology established by Reagan, but had little to no claim on the hijackers and by intercepting the Egyptian flight violated international law.

After more than five hours of stalemate, the US turned jurisdiction over to Italy, with the assurance that the terrorists would be prosecuted for the murder of Klinghoffer.

The chaos wasn’t quite over yet. After the stalemate, the Egyptian flight left Sigonella for Rome, still with the PLO negotiators. US forces suspected the PLO was involved in the kidnapping and feared the Palestinians would be released. So the 747 was followed by a US military plane to Rome and taxied in front of the Egyptian flight to prevent its departure from Rome until the pilot threatened to run over the Americans. Italy arranged for the PLO members to take off on a chartered plane.

Eventually, a Sicilian prosecutor condemned the PLO negotiators in absencebut no term was ever served by either. All four kidnappers were convicted and serving prison terms.

Ultimately, the US and Italy were ready to let the incident pass. On October 25, President Ronald Reagan said to Craxi, “The incident is closed. We are friends like we were before. ”Craxi addressed it in a speech to Parliament, saying that Sigonella was“ a lack of information and understanding ”, stressing the importance of Italy’s allies with the United States.

If the Sigonella crisis teaches us anything, it is that international relations are chaotic when it comes to terrorism. And when it gets personal, the lines blur. During that brief period of long days in ’85, Italy and the United States came to a turning point and we should all be glad neither side fired a shot.


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