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U.S. Indicates It Would Not Rule out ‘discussions’ with Ship’s Hijackers

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The Reagan Administration indicated today that it would not rule out “discussions” with the hijackers of the Italian cruise ship seized yesterday near Port Said. But officials would give no details as to what steps were being considered or whether the U.S. would seek to play a leading role in attempting to win the release of some 400 hostages on board, among them about a dozen Americans.

The hijackers, who claim to represent the Palestine Liberation Front — a radical splinter group of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command — have reportedly demanded the release of some 50 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. In the meantime they are also said to have requested that a Red Cross ship carry the Ambassadors of the United States, Italy, Britain and West Germany in Damascus to the Syrian port of Tartous, to meet with the hijackers.

State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb would neither confirm nor deny the report. The ship has subsequently been reported headed toward Cyprus. “I am not ruling out the possibility that we would have discussions at any level in order to secure their release,” Kalb said in response to a question. But he maintained that the U.S. position against “negotiating” with terrorists has not changed.

Kalb said the Administration also believed the hijackers’ claims that they represent the Palestine Liberation Front, although the Front’s office in Damascus has reportedly denied any involvement. Administration officials said they had no independent confirmation of reports that one passenger had already been killed.

White House and State Department spokesmen said the U.S. has been in close contact with the governments of Egypt, Israel, Syria, Britain, Lebanon and others on the crisis. But they would not say if any non-governmental contacts had been initiated by the Administration.

Meanwhile, President Reagan is said to have called the hijacking “the most ridiculous thing.” His comment was reportedly made as an aside to visiting Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at a White House photo session.

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