The surrender of the Palestinian hijackers of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro to Egyptian authorities at Port Said late today was followed by a spate of conflicting reports that one of the passengers, an American, may have been killed.
Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi told reporters in Rome tonight that “Only now it has been ascertained that a U.S. citizen has been killed.” An aide identified the presumed victim as Leon Klinghoffer, 69, of New York City.
Pressed for details, Craxi said no body had been found in the ship but “this person is missing.” He said the Achille Lauro’s Master, Capt. Gerrardo de Rosa, has the missing man’s passport and assumes the body was thrown into the sea.
Earlier today, Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid said in Cairo that all 400 passengers and crew members held hostage for some 48 hours at sea were safe and well. He said the information at hand indicated no one was killed or injured. Capt. de Rosa was also quoted as saying all the passengers were well and no violence had occurred during the hijack ordeal.
There had been reports from Israel before the surrender that Jewish couple aboard the ship was slain. It was not immediately known whether Klinghoffer is Jewish. He was travelling with his wife, Marilyn and, according to friends, was confined to a wheelchair.
In New York, Klinghoffer’s family, friends and neighbors were jubilant at the early reports that all passengers were safe. But this turned to sorrow with later reports that he was missing and presumed dead. Many of those interviewed by the media said Klinghoffer was “a beautiful human being” and liked by all who knew him for being gentle, caring and loving.
CALLS FOR LENIENT TREATMENT OF HIJACKERS
Before Craxi spoke to the press Italy’s Foreign Minister, Giulio Andreotti, said at a separate news conference that he agreed with Meguid that the hijackers should be treated leniently if there had been no bloodshed aboard the vessel.
The hijackers, who numbered only four Palestinians according to Egyptian officials, surrendered at 5:15 p.m. local time and were removed from the ship by an Egyptian Navy launch at Port Said. Port officials said they were taken to a nearby naval base.
The surrender followed a parley between the hijackers and Egyptian and Italian officials and two representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization sent to Port Said by PLO chief Yasir Arafat. The PLO later claimed a “success” for its diplomacy.
The ship was seized at sea Monday while enroute from Alexandria to Port Said, part of a Mediterranean cruise that began at Genoa. There were about 350 crew members mostly Italian, and 70-80 passengers of many nationalities aboard. The bulk of the more than 600 passengers were on sightseeing excursions in Egypt and were to rejoin the vessel at Port Said.
The hijackers demanded Israel’s immediate release of 50 imprisoned Palestinian terrorists. Israel maintained a low profile throughout the incident, noting that the ship was Italian, was not hijacked in Israeli waters and that no country had asked Israel to take any action.
SHIP HEADED TOWARD ASHDOD
The Achille Lauro’s next cruise port of call was Ashdod, Israel. A spokesman for the Al-Minya Shipping Co., the vessel’s agents in Port Said, said tonight that after the surrender she made for Port Said but changed course on orders from her owners, Flotta Lauro of Naples, and was headed toward Ashdod.
Earlier reports said that most of the cruise passengers who had been ashore during the hijack did not re-join the ship but were flown to Rome by a special Alitalia flight.