MINIEH: A Palestinian who absconded from Italy while on parole for the 1985 hijacking of cruise ship Achille Lauro is holed up in the Lebanon refugee camp where the army is besieging Islamist militants. Bassam al-Ashker, now 39, told AFP by telephone that he is now a militiaman for the mainstream Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and saw it as his duty to brave the fighting to help the thousands of trapped civilians.
Ashker was just 17 when he took part in the assault on the Achille Lauro by commandos of the Palestine Liberation Front of Abu Abbas in which some 450 passengers were held hostage for several days and a wheelchair-bound American tourist was killed.
He told AFP he had retained his radical anti-Western politics and, after fleeing Italy in 1991 following his release on parole from nearly six years in jail, spent 14 years in Iraq before moving to Lebanon's Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
"I organize the training of young Palestinian recruits who we send to fight the Americans alongside the Iraqi resistance," Ashker told AFP. "I have even fought them myself in Fallujah and Ramadi," two rebel bastions west of Baghdad.
Despite his anti-Western views, Ashker insisted he had no truck with the Islamist fighters of fringe militant group Fatah al-Islam.
"They have certainly proved their military prowess," he said.
"If they had used it to fight Israel, I would have been the first to join them, but they are fanatics who believe only in religion and have no regard of the consequences of their actions on civilians," he said.
"Not along ago, Muslim clerics reminded them that it was wrong to attack Palestinians or Lebanese but they retorted that their religion took primacy over everything else."
Despite his disdain for the Fatah al-Islam fighters, Ashker insisted he had no intention of leaving the Nahr al-Bared camp, where living conditions have been deteriorating amid chronic shortages of water, food and power.
"It is shameful for a young man to leave the camp - we need all the help we can get," Ashker said. - AFP