RAMALLAH, West Bank Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal died in Baghdad with multiple gunshot wounds that left unclear whether he had been killed by a rival, slain by his Iraqi patrons or had taken his own life, Palestinian officials said Monday.
The schoolteacher-turned-terror- mastermind, once branded the world's most dangerous terrorist by the U.S. State Department, struck from Paris to Pakistan for more than two decades. His ruthless campaign targeted civilians and eliminated some of the closest associates of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
His most notorious but not most lethal attacks were twin assaults Dec. 27, 1985, on the Israeli airline El Al's ticket counters at Rome and Vienna airports. Eighteen people were killed and 120 wounded.
Abu Nidal, 65, a renegade who opposed any negotiations with Israel, was found dead three days ago in his apartment in the Iraqi capital, said two senior Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
They said they believed Abu Nidal committed suicide but did not explain how he could have shot himself several times. The Al-Ayyam newspaper, 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.
Another Palestinian official said he would not be surprised if a Palestinian had killed Abu Nidal in revenge for assassinations of senior PLO figures.
The shooting death left many questions unanswered. Abu Nidal had collected many enemies, but he had also been ill reportedly with heart disease and bone cancer and that may have led him to commit suicide.
In Baghdad, the deputy Palestinian ambassador, Nejah Abdul-Rahman, said he had no information regarding what he described as "rumors" of Abu Nidal's death.
The spokesman for Abu Nidal's group, Ghanem Saleh, speaking in Lebanon, said he heard the report in the news media and had no comment.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, Abu Nidal's brother said he had no information to indicate his brother had died in Baghdad but added that he had not heard from him in 38 years. Mohammed al-Banna, a fruit and vegetable merchant, told Associated Press Television News it was not the first time rumors have circulated concerning the death of his brother, whose real name was Sabri al-Banna.
The U.S. State Department once termed Abu Nidal's group "the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence." But Jordanian political analyst Bilal al-Tal said Monday that Abu Nidal's "influence had diminished" in recent years. Since 1995 he had confined himself to Baghdad with a few close men.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry refused comment on reports of Abu Nidal's death, saying it was an internal Palestinian matter.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the Bush administration had no comment, but called Abu Nidal "a craven and despicable terrorist" and said "the world would be a better place without people like Abu Nidal."
Reports of Abu Nidal's death come at a time that the Bush administration is considering military action to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who has been accused of sheltering terrorists.
Although Abu Nidal began his activities in the Palestine Liberation Organization, he split from the group in the mid-1970s, protesting that Arafat had not taken a radical enough line against Israel. Abu Nidal then focused on Arafat, killing many of his confidants.
The radical faction that Abu Nidal formed which went by the name Fatah-Revolutionary Council killed at least 275 people and wounded hundreds more in dozens of attacks.