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Twelve years ago, Yugoslavian-born Frane Pesut held the world's attention for two days as he and four other Croatian nationalists hijacked an airliner over Buffalo and began an odyssey from North America to Europe.

Today, after completing 12 years of a 30-year prison sentence, he sits in a Buffalo jail, a man without a country as immigration officials try to deport him.

But Pesut, 38, has at least one ally in Buffalo.

Monsignor Stephen F. Lackovic, pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Bistrica Croatian Catholic Church in Lackawanna, befriended the young machinist in jail shortly after the hijacking. Now he's ready to plead for Pesut to start over in the United States. The U.S. Immigration Court will decide his fate Thursday.

"Of course, he never should have done what he did," said Monsignor Lackovic, a Yugoslavian refugee who once served as secretary to the late Croatian patriot Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac. "But in the eyes of the Croatian people, he's a hero. It all depends on who you are and how you look at things."

Buffalo immigration officials want to deport Pesut following his release Tuesday from the federal prison at Ray Brook, where he completed 12 years of a 30-year sentence for hijacking a TWA flight Sept. 12, 1976.

He is the only one of those involved in the hijacking who faces deportation; the others are U.S. citizens.

The incident commanded worldwide attention as the group, carrying fake dynamite sticks, hijacked the New York-to-Chicago flight. The Boeing 737 was diverted to Montreal, then to Newfoundland, and ultimately landed in Paris, where the hijackers surrendered to French authorities.

In their efforts to call attention to their cause of Croatian independence, the hijackers also planted a bomb in a locker on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal. That bomb exploded, killing Officer Brian Murray of the New York Police Department's bomb squad.

"We look at him as convicted of air piracy and a terrorist," said Benedict J. Ferro, district director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Buffalo.

But Pesut contends he will be imprisoned the minute he sets foot in Yugoslavia for his fervent advocacy of the province of Croatia and is petitioning to remain in the United States.

"For me, it would be like a second sentence," he told The Buffalo News at an immigration service detention facility in Buffalo. "If a court deports me, it would be much worse (than jail). I would rather be dead."

Pesut's story began in the early 1970s, when he claims he fled to Austria following violent confrontations with police during a religious festival. He was sponsored by Catholic refugee agencies in Vienna and allowed to enter the United States in 1972 as a refugee. He settled with a sister in Cleveland until he was laid off by U.S. Steel, then took a job in a New Jersey machine shop owned by a friend.

It was in New York that he met Zvonko Busic, an unemployed waiter and militant Croatian nationalist who was the mastermind of the hijacking.

"I liked to listen to him," Pesut recalled. "He always gave us hope that we would someday all go back to a free Croatia."

At this point, Pesut's story departs from the police version. Pesut contends that he was traveling at Busic's invitation to a Croatian meeting in Chicago and was never let in on the hijacking scheme. It was only after the plane was commandeered over Buffalo that he figured he should go along with the effort, he said.

"Busic pulled out these dynamite sticks. It was a complete surprise," he said. "I was scared and hoped it would just end. I went along because I thought it was the best solution, and he said it was for the Croatian cause. And I was concerned for myself; you never knew what he had in mind."

Law enforcement authorities who asked not to be identified view the incident differently. They say the evidence pointed to Pesut's involvement from the beginning.

In a Brooklyn federal court a year after the hijacking, Pesut was convicted and sentenced. After one year of prison in Manhattan, four in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth and seven more at Ray Brook, Pesut is now paroled from prison -- but still not a free man.

Ferro explained that, because Pesut violated his refugee status in the United States, he could be sent back to France where he was captured, or even Yugoslavia. But he noted that the immigration agency must prove its case in U.S. Immigration Court.

"He may well argue that he can't go back to Yugoslavia without harm, and the French government may not desire to take him," he said. "And he may have enough equity here to convince someone to let him stay."

Ferro noted, however, that the Grand Central bomb remains central to the case. The hijackers claimed all along that the bomb was not meant to hurt anyone, but was planted to demonstrate they were serious in their cause. Police found the bomb, and in attempting to remove it, it exploded.

Monsignor Lackovic said he can never condone the violence that the hijackers used to call attention to their cause. But he noted that he, like Pesut, was a victim of an oppressive regime that he was forced to flee in 1945.

Monsignor Lackovic noted that two of the other hijackers have been released from prison and allowed to resume normal lives because they are U.S. citizens. Even Busic and his wife, who also are U.S. citizens, will be allowed to stay here when they are released.

But because Pesut had only a "green card" signifying permanent residency, he can be deported.

For Pesut, 12 years in prison have quenched some of the fires of political idealism. He remains a strong advocate of removing Croatia from what he calls oppressive Yugoslavian rule, but promises to stay away from the political limelight.

"I just want to start a new life," he said. "I'd like to get married, maybe start a family. I can't change what happened 12 years ago. But it won't be repeated."

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