ROME, JULY 25 -- A Palestinian who was acquitted of a minor role in the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship fell or jumped to his death from his fifth-floor apartment today trying to avoid extradition to Syria.
Police identified the man as Mowefaq Said Gandour, 38. Gandour was one of 15 persons tried in Genoa last year in connection with the Achille Lauro hijacking, in which an elderly, wheelchair-bound American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered.
Gandour was acquitted of being a part of the hijacking conspiracy. He was convicted of perjury for giving a false name and false information at the trial, but was acquitted of this charge on appeal.
During the trial Gandour claimed he was a Palestine Liberation Organization colonel who had been mistakenly arrested while passing through Rome on his way to a secret mission in Beirut. The PLO denied that Gandour was part of the organization.
Gandour had remained in Italy since his trial because no country would accept him. Today, police arrested Gandour, following a Syrian request for his extradition on fraud charges.
Police spokesman Riccardo Infelisi said officers at police headquarters informed Gandour that he would be deported to Damascus. Gandour asked that he be taken first to his apartment in the Trastevere district of Rome so he could pick up some belongings and inform his pregnant, Polish wife, Infelisi said.
When police took him to the apartment he bolted and locked himself in a bedroom. By the time the police kicked in the door, Infelisi said, Gandour was climbing out a window onto a small ledge.
"They grabbed hold of him," Infelisi said, "but he was all sweaty and they weren't able to hold on to him." Gandour fell to the street below, where he apparently died instantly.
Infelisi said the police were treating the case as a suicide.
Gandour's identity and specific activities have remained a mystery to Italian officials despite repeated interrogations. Judge Francesco Paolo Castellano, who wrote the Achille Lauro sentences, said Gandour behaved like a "folkloric spy" who was "in such a habit of changing his name" that he repeatedly got into trouble.
At times during his interrogations, he identified himself as Gandour, saying he had been born in Damascus on March 10, l949. At other times he said he was Ibrahim Hussari, born either in Morocco or Jordan.
In his sentencing report, Judge Castellano concluded that Gandour was not a member of the PLO as he had claimed, but had at times put himself at the disposal of its factions.