Sean McCormack, spokesman at the State Department, said on Tuesday that President George Bush's administration was disappointed by Germany's decision to free Mohammed Ali Hamadi, convicted in the 1985 hijacking of a Trans World Airlines jetliner.
Hamadi was convicted in Germany for the hijacking of the airplane, the beating and shooting to death of US Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, whose body was dumped onto the tarmac of Beirut International Airport in Lebanon.
The United States filed federal murder charges against Hamadi in 1985, and asked Germany to extradite him after his capture.
He was arrested at the Frankfurt airport on 13 January 1987, when customs officials discovered liquid explosives in his luggage. The Germans denied the extradition request.
Later, McCormack's office said no new extradition request was filed because the US-German extradition treaty did not allow extradition on an identical charge for which the fugitive had been tried.
Was the parole a quid quo for
Sossane Osthoff's release?
Hamadi would face the possibility of a death sentence if convicted in US courts of the murder of a US serviceman.
Germany has no death penalty and refused to hand over Hamadi when he was arrested.
Most European states refuse to extradite fugitives into possible death sentences.
"We were certainly disappointed at the time that we did not get our hands on him then," McCormack said on Tuesday, "and we are disappointed that he was released before the end of his full sentence."
Hamadi apparently has returned to Lebanon. His whereabouts are unclear.
The United States is talking to Lebanese officials about handing him over, a process that is complicated by the lack of a formal extradition treaty between the two countries, McCormack said.
It is not clear whether Hamadi could be tried twice for what is essentially the same crime, but McCormack said US authorities believed they could bring a case.
"Since his arrest and conviction, the United States has made its views known that Hamadi should face trial in the US for the murder of Mr. Stethem; and that we have demonstrated over the years that when we believe an individual is responsible for the murder of innocent American civilians, that we will track them down and that we will bring them to justice in the United States," McCormack said.
The hijacked TWA plane on Beirut
airport's tarmac in June 1985
"It does not matter how long it takes, but we will track them down and they will face justice in the United States."
Lebanon elected a democratic government this year after three decades of Syrian domination.
McCormack said Germany notified the United States of Hamadi's release before he reached Lebanon. It was not clear how much notice was given or whether the United States formally renewed its request to extradite Hamadi.
German Justice Ministry spokeswoman Eva Schmierer said Berlin had received no extradition request. She said the matter was handled by the regional legal system, not the federal government.
TWA flight 847 from Athens, Greece, to Rome was hijacked to Beirut in June 1985, where the hijackers beat and shot Stethem, 23, of Waldorf, Maryland, and dumped his body on the tarmac.
Stethem was the only casualty during the hijacking ordeal, in which 39 Americans were held hostage for 17 days. His family received for him the Bronze Star and Purple Heart decorations, and a US Navy guided missile destroyer was named in his honour.
Witnesses later identified Hamadi as having beaten the tied-up Stethem and the plane's flight engineer later testified at the 1989 trial that Hamadi bragged he had killed the diver.
Reports linked the release of Hamadi with the release of a German hostage in Iraq.
Martin Jaeger, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, said there was no connection between his release and that of Susanne Osthoff, a German woman released recently after spending more than three weeks as a hostage in Iraq.
The Frankfurt prosecutor's office too denied any link to Osthoff's release. Hammadi was released after a standard review of his case, a lengthy process that began long before Osthoff was seized, Moeller-Scheu said.
Under German law, Hamadi became eligible for release after serving 15 years. He spent over 18 years in jail in Germany.
Hizb Allah connection?
Hamadi was released and returned to Beirut a few days ago, a Hizb Allah official in Beirut told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mohammed Ali Hamadi was said
to be a member of the Hizb Allah
A Lebanese security official also confirmed that Hamadi had arrived four days ago aboard a commercial flight from Germany, but would not elaborate.
It was not immediately known where Hamadi went after his entry to Lebanon.
A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Hamadi was in temporary Lebanese custody.
Hizb Allah is not known to operate in Iraq, though security experts say it has links to some of the many Shia groups there. These groups have kidnapped people in Iraq, often for ransom.
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 Hizb Allah.