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Reagan: ‘would Like to Believe’ That the PLO Can Bring Hijackers of Italian Ship to Justice

President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz offered conflicting Administration positions today on whether Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasir Arafat should be considered an acceptable authority for prosecuting the four Palestinian terrorists who murdered an elderly American Jew the day before releasing the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, near Port Said yesterday.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, President Reagan said this afternoon that a demand should be made to Arafat to turn the hijackers over for prosecution. But when asked if the United States would be satisfied if Arafat himself tried the hijackers, Reagan said that he “would like to believe” that the PLO “can bring them to justice.”

In response to a follow-up question, Reagan said that prosecution of the four terrorists by the PLO would not be tantamount to diplomatic recognition of the organization. “I don’t think that would necessarily follow,” Reagan said. He later reportedly retracted his statement about Arafat’s role, saying he “was speaking vengence instead of justice” when he commented initially.

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning, Shultz repeated earlier statemerts by the White House and State Department that the Administration would “insist that there be no sanctuary for these people, that there be no safe harbor, that there be no escape from justice.”

Apparently alluding to suggestions by Arafat that the PLO would try the hijackers if they fell into his hands, Shultz stressed that it was “up to a government” to prosecute the terrorists.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said today that the terrorists had left the area of Port Said — presumably into PLO hands — but there was still no confirmation this afternoon that Arafat’s wing of the PLO was holding them.

Mubarak told reporters today, in Egypt, that when his government arranged to negotiate the release of the hostages, in return for surrendering the hijackers to the PLO “on the high seas,” he had relied on reports from the ship that no one had been harmed. Had he known that a passenger had in fact been killed, Mubarak said, Egypt would have responded differently.

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