TEL AVIV (Jan. 10)
Haifa police detained two passengers today from the Italian motorship Messapia for questioning in connection with four suspected Arab terrorists who were removed last night from the liner at Famagusta, Cyprus. The two were held all day, but released toward evening after police ascertained they had no connection with the four Arabs. They were put aboard the ship shortly before it sailed tonight. Other passengers in transit had been permitted to disembark for a one-day tour of Israel after a search of the 6000-ton vessel and the passengers’ luggage.
The Messapia, owned by the Adriatica Line, which sails regularly between Italy and Israel via Cyprus and Greece; was boarded by Cypriot police and Israeli security agents in Famagusta. The police acting on “Israeli information” removed four young Arab-passengers who were traveling to Israel with Afghanistan passports. Other passengers were allowed several hours’ tour of Cyprus, but the four Arabs were placed on a plane for Beirut, Lebanon. They had asked for a flight to Rome which was not available.
According to sources in Cyprus, the four were planning to land at Haifa, commit a major act of sabotage and escape aboard the Messapia when it sailed. According to one version, the Arabs hoped to get the needed arms and ammunition from Turkish friends in Cyprus, and if that failed, to return to Rome. Another version is that upon the police’s refusal to grant them landing permission, they feared they were suspected and decided to call off their mission, asking to be flown back to Rome. They reportedly readily agreed to go to Beirut instead.
According to the Messapia’s Master, the four suspects boarded the ship separately, apparently. at Bari, the Messapia’s last Italian port of call. They were seen together speaking in Arabic and kept themselves apart from the 71 other passengers during the voyage. One report from Cyprus said the four Arabs, were members of the Black September organization. Neither their names nor the names of the two detained at Haifa were disclosed.