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US reiterates $5m reward for hijackers of jet in 1985

Suspects believed in Lebanon, Syria

BEIRUT -- With Lebanon free of Syria's grasp, the United States issued an unusual reminder yesterday about the millions of dollars still offered for information on three Shi'ite Muslims who hijacked an American passenger jet 20 years ago, killing a Navy SEAL.

The three are still believed to be in Lebanon or Syria, the US Embassy in Beirut said in a statement on its website, adding that it is offering a $5 million reward for information on their whereabouts.

''The United States will pay cash rewards in any currency for information that assists in bringing to justice those who murder and terrorize its citizens," it said.

Both Lebanon and Syria have denied the men are on their soil.

TWA Flight 847 was hijacked in 1985 on a flight from Athens to Rome, and during a 17-day standoff at Beirut's airport, gunmen killed US Navy diver Robert Stethem and threw his body onto the tarmac.

The rewards are offered for Imad Mughniyeh, the former Hezbollah security chief who is also accused in the kidnappings of Americans in Beirut and other terror attacks, as well as two other men linked to Hezbollah, Hassan Izz-Al-Din and Ali Atwa.

The embassy said the reminder was timed for the 20th anniversary of the June 14, 1985, hijacking. But it also came at a time of dramatic change in Lebanon.

Syria's military withdrew in April after a 29-year presence, and Damascus's longtime control of Lebanon has crumbled. Syria's opponents have a majority in parliament and are putting together a government.

Syria has long been accused of protecting militant groups in Lebanon, but its ability to do so now is hampered. Individuals may be more willing to come forward with information now without the shadow of reprisals from Syrian intelligence agents, who once kept a grip on even day-to-day aspects of Lebanese life.

Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed guerrilla group that is now taking a stronger role in Lebanese politics, has denied any link to the hijacking.

The reminder of the reward also came as a UN team is in Beirut to investigate the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The inquiry has set a precedent in a country where assassinations have gone unpunished, and has raised hopes that other crimes might be investigated.

The hijacking of Flight 847 produced some of the more notorious images of the attacks on Westerners that occurred during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. One photo showed a hijacker holding a gun to pilot John Testrake's head as they leaned out of the cockpit window during the standoff.

The passenger jet was hijacked by Shi'ite Muslim extremists with 153 people, mostly Americans, aboard. The hijackers forced the plane to fly back and forth several times between Algiers and Beirut airport. On the second day of the seizure, June 15, Stethem, 23, was killed.

After mediation by Shi'ite moderates, the hostages were released June 30, but the hijackers went free. Nothing has been heard about them since the civil war ended in 1990.

All three men were indicted in the United States in absentia for their role in the hijacking. The rewards were first posted when the US put out a list of the 22 most-wanted following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The TWA hijacking came during Lebanon's chaotic sectarian-driven civil war. Mughniyeh's forces were linked to the kidnapping of scores of Americans, Frenchmen, Britons, Germans, and other foreigners in Lebanon at about the same period.

Mughniyeh is also suspected of being behind suicide attacks against the US Embassy and the Marine base in Lebanon in the 1980s, bombings that killed more than 260 Americans. His present connections to Hezbollah are unclear.

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