Ali Atwa, wanted by FBI for role in notorious 1985 hijacking, dies

BEIRUT — Ali Atwa, whose role in a 1985 plane hijacking landed him on the FBI’s top 10 wanted list, has died, Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, announced Saturday.

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Atwa was a senior operative believed to be in his early 60s, according to The Associated Press. He died of complications related to cancer, Hezbollah said.

Atwa took part in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, which originated in Athens, Greece, on June 14, 1985, and lasted 16 days. The ordeal led to the death of Robert Stethem, 23, a U.S. Navy pilot who was a passenger on the plane, reported.

The hijackers had demanded the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, according to the AP.

The men forced the plane, which had 153 passengers and crew members -- including 85 Americans -- to zigzag across the Mediterranean between Beirut and Algiers on a trip that covered 8,300 miles, The New York Times reported.

The passengers were held at gunpoint and ordered to spend up to seven hours with their arms raised and their heads bent down. They were robbed of their jewelry, cameras and wallets, the newspaper reported.

The plane was allowed to land in Beirut, where the hijackers freed 19 American women and children, the AP reported. The plane then took off for Algeria, where more hostages were released, until the plane returned to Beirut.

The FBI had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Atwa’s arrest. He was accused of conspiring to take hostages, committing air piracy that led to the slaying of an American, and placing explosives aboard an aircraft, according to the FBI.

The flight, with 153 passengers and crew members, including 85 Americans, was commandeered by the hijackers after taking off from Athens bound for Rome.

The plane was allowed to land in Beirut, where the hijackers freed 19 American women and children. They then flew to Algeria, where more hostages were released, before returning to Beirut.

In Lebanon, the hijackers fatally shot Stethem after beating him unconscious. The plane returned to Algeria and then Athens, were Atwa was arrested, the AP reported.

He was released by Greek authorities after his fellow hijackers threatened to kill more hostages.