Washington, 20 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department says it cannot confirm the reported death of terrorist mastermind Abu Nidal but says the world would be better off without the veteran Palestinian guerrilla.
Abu Nidal was reportedly found dead of bullet wounds in his Baghdad home. It is not clear whether he committed suicide or was killed. His associates said on Monday the 64-year-old Abu Nidal died several days ago.
At a briefing, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker was asked if the U.S. government could confirm the death. Reeker said he could not contribute anything to press reports widely circulating on the matter. "Abu Nidal is a craven and despicable terrorist, and the world would certainly be a better place without people like Abu Nidal," Reeker said.
Palestinians said the circumstances of Abu Nidal's reported death have left it unclear whether he had been killed by a rival, his Iraqi patrons, or perhaps had taken his own life.
The "Al-Alyyam" newspaper, which is close to the Palestinian Authority, reported Monday that Abu Nidal was found shot in the head in his apartment by Iraqi forces who had come to arrest him.
Other Palestinian sources were also quoted by Western news agencies as saying that they believed that Abu Nidal committed suicide. They did not explain how he could have shot himself more than once.
Abu Nidal had been ill during the last months of his life, reportedly with heart disease and bone cancer.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Abu Nidal's brother said he had no information about his brother but added he had not heard from him for nearly four decades.
Abu Nidal masterminded the killings of both Israelis and fellow Palestinians who opposed his idea that Israel should be destroyed. Perhaps his most spectacular terror attacks were twin assaults on the Israeli airline El Al's ticket counter at the Rome and Vienna airports in 1985. Eighteen people were killed and 120 wounded.
In order to evade capture, Abu Nidal frequently used disguises, reportedly even plastic surgery. His backers over the years included Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
Abu Nidal sought refuge in Iraq during the 1980s -- the State Department put the date at 1988.
The State Department's Reeker said it was no accident that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government had given Abu Nidal sanctuary. "Iraq's record of providing support, safe haven, training, logistical assistance, and financial aid to terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization is why Iraq is listed as a state supporter of terrorism," Reeker said.
In addition to plotting terrorist attacks against Israeli interests, Abu Nidal also is believed to have assassinated several Palestinian moderates and two top aides of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after splitting with the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO. He accused the PLO of abandoning its struggle against Israel.