By Jane Sutton

Washington - Veteran Palestinian guerrilla leader Abu Abbas, who masterminded the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, has been captured by United States special forces in Iraq, the US military said on Tuesday.

US Central Command, which is overseeing the war in Iraq, said in a statement that Abbas was picked up in a raid in southern Baghdad on Monday evening.

It said his capture "removes a portion of the terror network supported by Iraq and represents yet another victory in the global war on terrorism," although Abbas has long renounced violence and Israel has allowed him to travel to Gaza.

Asked what would happen to Abbas now, Central Command spokesperson Major Brad Bartelt said: "Justice will be served." He gave no further details.

Abbas, also known as Mohammed Abbas, was sentenced in absentia in Italy to life in prison for planning the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship in the eastern Mediterranean.

The hijackers killed a disabled, elderly, American Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, shooting him and pushing his wheelchair over the side of the ship.

His daughters, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, released a statement late on Tuesday urging the US to try Abbas on charges of piracy, hostage-taking and conspiracy.

"We are delighted that the murderous terrorist Abu Abbas is in US custody. While we personally seek justice for our father's murder, the larger issue is terrorism," they said.

"Bringing Abbas to justice will send a strong signal to terrorists anywhere in the world that there is no place to run, no place to hide."

Abbas, in his mid-50s, has spent much of the last 17 years in Iraq. He has travelled in the Middle East and stayed for some time in Gaza with the permission of the Israelis.

Although he was the target of a manhunt after the Achille Lauro incident, Washington dropped the warrant for his arrest several years ago.

A hero of battle to Palestinians and the incarnation of evil to Israelis, Abbas became portly in middle age, his hair gray after decades as a fugitive.

While he was not aboard the Achille Lauro, Italian courts sentenced Abbas in absentia to five life terms for planning the operation.

In a 1998 interview with Reuters, he called the ship hijack a mistake and said the mission had been to use the ship as transportation to Israel for an attack on a naval base.

"The ship was only a means of transport like any other means we used to reach our goal," Abbas said.

The Israeli Supreme Court declared Abbas immune from prosecution in Israel over the Achille Lauro in 1999 after he was allowed to return to Gaza by an Israeli Security Committee which had concluded that he had renounced violence.

"I've been chased by the world now for 20 years. When America is chasing you, the whole world is chasing you," Abbas said in the 1998 Reuters interview at his office in the Palestinian-ruled Gaza.

Central Command said one of the key objectives of the war in Iraq had been to "search for, capture and drive out terrorists who have found safe haven in Iraq". It added: "This mission success highlights the US and our coalition partners' commitment to defeating terrorism worldwide."

Late last year, in an interview in Baghdad with the New York Times, Abbas distanced himself from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda network and condemned the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

One month before those attacks, Abbas faulted the policies of President George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and defended his group's decision in the mid-1960s to embark on a violent path against Israel and the US.

"The people don't hear if you don't knock loudly on the door," he told Finnish journalist Michael Franck in an interview in August 2001 and made available to Reuters by Sands Digital Media of Los Angeles.

Interviewed at his well-appointed home and office in Baghdad, Abbas said he ended up in the Iraqi capital at the government's invitation "because I haven't any place to go".