Hezbollah killer freed as hostage is released

GERMANY has quietly released a Hezbollah member jailed for life for the murder of a US Navy diver, disregarding Washington's desire that he be extradited or remain behind bars, officials said yesterday.

The government said there was no link between Mohammad Ali Hammadi's release and that of a German hostage in Iraq just days later.

"He served his term," Eva Schmierer, a spokeswoman for Germany's justice ministry, told a news conference.

Sources in Berlin and Beirut said that Mohammad Ali Hammadi, who was convicted of killing Robert Dean Stethem in Beirut during the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight and sentenced to life in prison, was flown to Lebanon last week.

Ms Schmierer said her ministry had never received a formal extradition request from Washington, but diplomats in Berlin said the German government was well aware the Americans would have liked Hammadi extradited upon release to the US, where he is under indictment for Mr Stethem's murder.

Under German law, Hammadi could not have been extradited for crimes for which he has already been convicted and punished - namely murder, air piracy and the possession of explosives.

The US did submit an extradition request to the West German government in 1987, but it was turned down since Hammadi could have faced the death penalty in America.

Still, several diplomats said that if he could not be extradited, the Americans had wanted Hammadi to remain behind bars for the murder of Mr Stethem, whose battered corpse was thrown out of the TWA plane by the hijackers after they had shot him.

The diplomats said that the release could complicate relations between Germany and the US, which have pledged to co-operate against terrorism.

The US embassy in Berlin made no comment on Hammadi's release, which came shortly before Susanne Osthoff was freed in Iraq.

The 43-year-old archaeologist had disappeared last month. Germany said on Sunday she was in safe custody.

The foreign ministry denied any Hammadi-Osthoff link, saying: "There is no connection between these two cases."

Doris Moeller-Scheu, the spokeswoman for the Frankfurt prosecutor's office, also denied any link to Osthoff. Hammadi was freed after a review of his case that began before Ms Osthoff was seized, she said.

Under German law, he became eligible for release after serving 15 years. He spent over 18 years in jail in Germany.

A Lebanese source said a senior German intelligence officer visited Damascus early this month but did not disclose the purpose of the trip. Syria is a key backer of Hezbollah.

Hammadi, now in his late 30s, was captured in 1987 and sentenced to life in 1989.

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