The hijack of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by four Palestinian terrorists off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast Monday, though lasting little more than 48 hours, left death in its wake and an international furore over the killers’ apparent escape from justice.
The United States assailed the “brutal killing” of an American passenger, identified as Leon Klinghoffer, 69, a New York City businessman who was Jewish and confined to a wheelchair. His death, intimated after the hijackers surrendered off Port Said, Egypt, late Wednesday afternoon, was confirmed some hours later by the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Nicholas Veliotes who demanded in Cairo that Egypt prosecute “those sons of bitches.”
But the Egyptian authorities, who granted the hijackers safe conduct out of Egypt, probably a condition of the surrender, insisted they knew nothing of Klinghoffer’s murder at the time.
PERES: ‘A NEW KIND OF RACISM’
In a Jerusalem radio interview Thursday, Premier Shimon Peres declared Israel would not forgive or forget the murder. The world, he said, is witnessing “a new kind of racism in which an elderly man in a wheelchair is murdered in cold blood just because his name sounds Jewish.”
Peres bluntly accused the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasir Arafat, or responsibility for the tragedy. The PLO denied complicity and even boasted Wednesday that its “diplomacy” had succeeded in effecting the hijackers’ surrender, thereby saving the lives of the 400 crew members and passengers aboard the Achille Lauro when she was seized. Peres’ comment was “murder and lying go hand in hand.”
There were no Israeli nationals aboard the ship. But Israel was involved insofar as the hijackers demanded it release immediately 50 imprisoned Palestinian terrorists in exchange for the hostages. Another link was the fact that the Achille Lauro, on a Mediterranean cruise that started in Genoa, was scheduled to call at the Israeli port of Ashdod after leaving Egypt. According to Peres and other Israeli officials, the hijackers intended to perpetrate a spectacular terrorist attack at Ashdod, but their plans went awry.
ARAFAT HELD PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE
Peres, meeting Thursday with United Nations Undersecretary General Brian Urquhart, contended that the PLO and Arafat personally were responsible not only for the Achille Lauro hijacking but for the torture-murder of two Israeli merchant seamen in a Barcelona, Spain, apartment Wednesday and the September 25 murders of three Israelis aboard a yacht in Larnaca, Cyprus. According to Peres, Arafat is determined to derail the peace efforts being pursued by King Hussein of Jordan.
Peres appeared ready to give President Hosni Mubarak the benefit of the doubt, at least for the time being, with respect to Egypt’s conduct after the ship hijackers surrendered. Mubarak told reporters in Cairo Thursday that the four Palestinians left the country five hours before Egypt knew that an American hostage had been murdered.
“If we knew about the killing, we would have changed our position on the whole operation, ” he said. Egyptian officials said they received their information about what was happening aboard the vessel from its Master, Capt. Gerrardo de Rosa. Immediately after the surrender, the captain was quoted as saying all passengers and crew were alive and well and that no violence had occurred during the hijack.
Italy’s Premier Bettino Craxi held a press conference in Rome Wednesday night in which he disclosed that Capt. de Rosa informed him in a radio-telephone report from the ship that an American passenger was missing and presumed dead and de Rosa, who had his passport, believed the body was thrown overboard. The passenger was identified as Klinghoffer.
His death was confirmed by Ambassador Veliotes who flew from Cairo to Port Said Wednesday night and, at President Reagan’s request, was permitted to board the Achille Lauro and interview the freed hostages.
EGYPT EXPLAINS ITS ROLE
Egyptian officials and diplomatic representatives abroad insisted Wednesday night and Thursday that Egypt’s role in the matter was solely as an intermediary conveying messages between the hijackers and the people negotiating the release of the hostages. The latter were the Ambassadors of Italy, Britain and West Germany in Egypt, a representative of the International Red Cross and two or more representatives of the PLO, said to have been dispatched by Arafat.
Italian, British and West German nationals, as well as Americans were among the hostages and the envoys of those countries were selected by the hijackers to negotiate. Italy’s Foreign Minister, Giulio Andreotti, said in Rome Wednesday that he agreed with Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Ismat Abdel Meguid, that the hijackers should be treated leniently provided none of the hostages was harmed.
The four Palestinians were taken off the Achille Lauro in a Port Said harbor tugboat. They were last seen waving at television camera crews aboard another harbor craft. Some reports Wednesday night said they were taken to an Egyptian naval base. Other reports had them in custody of PLO representatives. Egyptian authorities appeared to confirm late Wednesday night that they were no longer in Egypt, their whereabouts unknown.
U.S. FURIOUS AT RELEASE OF HIJACKERS
In Washington, State Department officials said they were furious at the speed with which the various negotiators allowed the hijackers to go free. White House spokesman Larry Speakes expressed anger at both the Italian and Egyptian authorities.
In a statement after Klinghoffer’s death was confirmed, Speakes said: “From the outset the United States government made it clear to the government of Egypt and the goverment of Italy our opposition to negotiations with the terrorists and our expectation that the terrorists would be apprehended, prosecuted and punished. The United States remains determined to see that those responsible for this heinous act be brought to justice and punished to the maximum extent. There must be no asylum for terrorism. We advised strongly against the release of the terrorists or any concession to them.”
It was not clear by Thursday whether Italy would demand their extradition and, if so, to whom the demand would be addressed. Some reports quoted Arafat as saying the PLO would hand over the killers to Italy. Other reports suggested the PLO would mete out justice itself.
There was no immediate explanation of why the hijackers chose to surrender two days after seizing the vessel. Her owners, Flotta Lauro of Naples, noted there were ample supplies of food, fresh water and fuel to remain at sea for many days. But the terrorists may have become nervous of their ability to maintain control of the 23,600 gross ton ship, a veritable floating hotel, over a long period. They sought asylum at a friendly port.
Capt. de Rosa was ordered to take her to the port of Tartous, northern Syria. But the Syrian authorities firmly refused entry. The ship then steered for Cyprus but was rebuffed there and returned to a point outside Egyptian territorial waters, off Port Said. Eyewitness accounts of the ordeal said Klinghoffer was murdered while the ship was near Tartous. There was no clear indication how he was killed or why.
Italy’s Ambassador to Egypt, Giovanni Migliuolo, who boarded the Achille Lauro after the surrender, told reporters Thursday “There were a number of cases where passengers were threatened with death.” He confirmed that Klinghoffer was murdered Tuesday off Tartous.
Migliuolo also said that “With the intervention of the officers of the ship, and some help from one of the four (hijackers) lives were saved.” An American woman, identified as Millie Hodes of Short Hills, N.J., was reportedly told by the hijackers that she would be the second to die, after Klinghoffer. That threat was not carried out.
Klinghoffer, a stroke victim, was able to leave his wheelchair for only short intervals and could not walk unassisted. That would seem to account for his not joining his wife on the sightseeing excursion ashore. But it raised a mystery why the terrorists singled him out for death since he was least likely to offer resistance. Other passengers with Jewish-sounding names were unharmed.
According to Ambassador Migliuolo, the hijackers were armed with “Kalachnikovs (assault rifles), grenades and they put gasoline tanks (apparently Molotov cocktails) in different places where the passengers were, but mainly the American and British passengers. They separated the British and Americans from the rest,” he said.
The Italian envoy said he thought the hijackers boarded the ship at the start of the cruise in Genoa. They reportedly said after their surrender that their weapons were concealed in vegetable crates taken aboard at Genoa where the ship provisioned for the cruise.
In a bizarre footnote to the tragedy, some sources suggested that the terrorists seized the wrong ship. According to those sources, their target was a Norwegian cruise ship in the Eastern Mediterranean at the same time, one of whose passengers was President Reagan’s daughter, Maureen Reagan. She arrived safely in Israel.