Reports from Rome and Washington today said Israel and the United States, along with the governments of Italy, Egypt and several other countries are coordinating efforts to deal with the latest hijack-hostage crisis — the seizure at sea yesterday of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by armed Palestinian terrorists who threaten to kill all aboard. (See story from Washington, P. 3.)
Israel, however, is keeping a low profile as the hijack drama unfolds. Premier Shimon Peres noted that the vessel was not in Israeli territorial waters and that as of today, Israel has not been requested to take any action.
Cabinet Secretary Yossi Beilin made the same point after a closed meeting of the Cabinet earlier this morning. He said Italy so far has made no demands or requests of Israel.
The hijackers reportedly have threatened to systematically kill the more than 400 passengers and crew members aboard the Achille Lauro unless Israel meets their demand for the immediate release of 50 Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons. According to an unconfirmed report, one hostage already has been killed.
TERRORISTS THREATEN TO BLOW UP SHIP
The terrorists have threatened to blow up the 23,629 gross ton vessel if any attempts are made to interfere. The Pentagon reported today that 25 units of the U.S. Sixth Fleet are presently in eastern Mediterranean waters.
The hostages are some 350 crew members, mostly Italian, and about 70-80 passengers of more than a dozen nationalities, including possibly 28 Americans. Israeli sources said no Israelis were aboard.
The bulk of the 680 passengers of more than a score of nationalities booked on the cruise, went ashore at Alexandria for sightseeing excursions and were to rejoin the Achille Lauro at Port Said, after which the ship was to call at Ashdod in Israel.
She was seized about 50 miles off the Egyptian Mediterranean coast enroute from Alexandria to Port Said. The hijackers, described in various reports as heavily armed, are said to belong to a splinter terrorist group called the Palestine Liberation Front. It is one of the dissident factions that broke away from the Palestine Liberation Organization.
A PLO spokesman in Tunis said the PLO was not involved in the hijacking and urged the terrorists to release the hostages and surrender. PLO chief Yasir Arafat, who is in Tunis, is said to have tried to mediate between the hijackers and the Egyptian government.
SHIP ORDERED TO SYRIAN PORT
A late report today said the Master of the Achille Lauro was ordered to take the ship to the Syrian port of Tartous where she arrived this morning.
Earlier reports had her making for Beirut, Lebanon. A Damascus report said the terrorists insist that the U.S. and Italian Ambassadors in Damascus serve as negotiators for the release of the hostages.
Diplomatic sources said the Syrian government conveyed that demand to the U.S. and Italy but a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Damascus said he could not confirm or deny the report.
The Italian government has been in nearly constant session in the office of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Rome said the government was in contact with Israel and asked for authority to set up a temporary base there to negotiate with the terrorists and follow developments. He said permission was granted.
Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti reportedly was in contact with the Palestinians and the Egyptian government seeking help to release the hostages. But Italian sources said Italy has not asked Israel to yield to the terrorist demands.
Most of the information from the Achille Lauro comes from wireless telephone communications intercepted by official monitors and amateur radio operators in various countries. The ship’s captain was overheard by West European radio stations this morning as telling an unidentified warship that his vessel was heading for Beirut and “all passengers and crew aboard are in good condition.”
SHIP APPARENTLY WIRED WITH EXPLOSIVES
A Spanish radio station reported overhearing the captain warn an unidentified warship to stay clear of his ship. The terrorists apparently have wired the Achille Lauro with explosives capable of sinking her. This may be the reason why seven armed men were able to seize control of a 631-foot-long, 82-foot-wide ship, nine or ten decks high and hold more than 400 people hostage.
Some reports said the hijackers boarded the vessel at Alexandria. Dockside security does not match security systems set up at airports to detect concealed weapons or explosives. Other reports said the terrorists boarded from a small boat at sea, which would be likely only if they had help from confederates already aboard.
The Achille Lauro, registered in Italy, was under charter to Chandris Cruises, a Greek company. The 38-year-old motorship was laid down in Holland in 1940 but, because of World War II, not completed until 1947, when, as the Willem Ruys, she was delivered to Dutch owners for passenger service to Indonesia.
In 1964 she was purchased by Flotta Lauro of Rome and extensively rebuilt and modernized. Beginning in 1973 she was employed exclusively on cruises in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and other waters.
OTHER RECENT HIJACKINGS
Ship hijacks are rare but not unknown. On January 22, 1961, the 21,000-ton Portuguese passenger liner Santa Maria was seized by Portuguese political dissidents in the Carribbean. It was not until February 2 that her passengers and crew were put ashore at Recife, Brazil. The hijackers later surrendered.
The most recent hijack crisis involving Israel and the U.S. was the seizure of TWA Flight 847 while enroute from Athens to Rome last June. The plane was flown to Beirut airport where the hijackers, Lebanese Shiite Moslems, demanded the release by Israel of more than 1,500 Shiites captured by the Israel Defense Force in Lebanon and interned at the Atlit prison camp near Haifa.
The hostages were 27 Americans including the flight crew. One American passenger, a U.S. Navy rating, was murdered by the hijackers. After 10 days of negotiations, during which the U.S. utilized the good offices of the Syrian government and Lebanese Shiite leader Nabih Berri, the hostages were freed and their captors escaped.
The Shiites imprisoned by Israel were subsequently released in batches over a period of several months. Israeli authorities insisted this was the intention all along and that no deal had been struck with the hijackers.