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August 26, 1998

Egyptians Hold Terrorist Chief, Official Asserts

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    LONDON -- One of the world's most wanted terrorists, the Palestinian guerrilla chief, Sabri al-Banna, better known as Abu Nidal, is being held by the Egyptian authorities in Cairo, according to an Arab intelligence official.

    Abu Nidal, 61, is accused by Washington of having killed or injured 900 people in attacks in 20 countries since 1974. He is wanted in the United States, Great Britain and Italy and was condemned to death by the Palestine Liberation Organization, from which he broke in 1972.

    The story of his capture after years in which he had seemed to vanish began emerging last week in the Arabic press and was as hard to pin down as the man himself. The convoluted account is woven of rumors of double-crosses, mysterious illnesses and murder.

    The Arab intelligence official, who spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity, said Abu Nidal was arrested two months ago in Egypt but had actually been there for nine months. The official said Adu Nidal had been cooperating with Egyptian intelligence agents who wanted to use his information to target terrorist groups planning bombings and assassinations in Egypt.

    The arrangement collapsed, the official said, when Egyptian agents actually infiltrated the Abu Nidal group and started using his own op- eratives against Egypt's militant fundamentalist enemies. When Abu Nidal realized this, the official said, he stopped cooperating and was arrested.

    One report suggested that Abu Nidal operatives killed a chief planner for the Islamic Group a few weeks ago in Yemen. The Islamic Group killed 58 tourists in an attack on Luxor, the Egyptian pyramid site, last November.

    The official's account could not be independently confirmed, but it was supported on some points by a PLO official.

    Last week, Egyptian officials denied that Abu Nidalwas on Egyptian territory after two Arabic newspapers asserted he was under arrest in Egypt. On Tuesday, Egyptian officials reached in Cairo refused to comment.

    PLO officials said Egypt would not confirm these reports to them, but left open the possibility the arrest may have taken place. Abu Nidal who has accused the group of betraying the Palestinian cause by negotiating peace with Israel.

    The news of his arrest first surfaced last week in London in two Saudi-owned Arabic dailies. Al Sharq al-Awsat reported that he was dying of cancer in an Egyptian hospital. Al Hayat asserted on its front page last week that he had been arrested in Egypt.

    The Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday that Abu Nidal had been arrested by Egyptian authorities as he crossed into Egypt from Libya.

    The Arab intelligence official speculated on Tuesday that Egyptian intelligence planted the story of his terminal illness in anticipation of getting rid of him, saying, "he is bound to disappear."

    Abu Nidal, whose name means "Father of Struggle," is the founder of the Palestinian opposition Fatah Revolutionary Council, which has claimed responsibility for lethal attacks around the world, mostly against Israelis and PLO leaders and partisans, but also against Jews in Western Europe and moderate Arab states.

    The group is one of 12 whose assets were frozen by President Clinton in 1995 for waging campaigns to undermine the Middle East peace effort.

    Although the Abu Nidal group is smaller now than it had been in the past, it continues to have cells in Lebanon, where it is said to command several hundred members, as well as in Syria, Libya, Iraq and several dormant organizations in Europe, according to intelligence officials.

    It was not clear where Abu Nidal was staying before traveling to Egypt or why he would accept an arrangement to provide information to Egypt, but it is known that he was unwelcome almost everywhere.

    Sabri al-Banna was born in Jaffa in 1937, and at various points he operated out of Libya, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. In the last few years his whereabouts were unknown. Over the years he is said to have ordered the killing of 150 of his own operatives on suspicion of treason, and the elimination of his potential enemies accounts for his ability to elude authorities around the world for so long.

    The PLO condemned Abu Nidal to death in 1974. Over the years, his death has been reported widely in accounts often spun by the man himself.

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