A ship intended to carry several hundred Palestinian deportees and their sympathizers on a demonstrative voyage to Israel was sabotaged by an underwater explosion at a Cypriot port, the Palestine Liberation Organization charged here Monday.
The PLO blamed Israel’s secret service, the Mossad, for the explosion and said that the ship could not sail until repairs were made.
Israeli authorities declined to comment on the explosion.
The announcement came as journalists and others supposed to make the trip were boarding buses for Athens airport to catch a commercial flight to Cyprus where, according to the PLO, they would embark at the port of Larnaca.
Cypriot authorities confirmed that the vessel, identified as the 6,000-ton car ferry Sol Thryne, sustained damage from an underwater explosion that ripped through its main fuel tank early Monday morning while in port at Limassol, not Larnaca. The vessel was reported to be listing.
Sources in Limassol said the ship had been arrested for debt and sold at auction to pay off its crew, identified as mostly Egyptians. It was reportedly sold Saturday for $600,000 to “unknown buyers,” believed to be active for the PLO.
The latest developments added a bizarre twist to what had become an extended media event, orchestrated by the PLO here with overtones both mysterious and comical.
The PLO first announced the “voyage of the Return,” an obvious attempt at an international propaganda coup at Israel’s expense, on Jan. 29. The group’s local representative, Fouad Bittar, together with Bassam Abu Sharif, PLO chief Yasir Arafat’s media spokesman, have attempted since then to retain the interest of an increasingly restive and skeptical press corps.
The PLO representatives claimed the vessel would depart from Piraeus, the port of Athens, and call at Larnaca to pick up more passengers and allow journalists to file preliminary stories and send pictures. But the sailing was repeatedly postponed. The PLO refused to identify the ship by name or say what flag it would fly.
Local and foreign journalists and television camera crews were regularly summoned to news conferences at the posh Intercontinental Hotel and invited to receptions in honor of the deportees.
Instead of details, they were treated to anti Israel diatribes by Palestinians and their sympathizers, including several Israelis of the extreme left-wing. The Palestinians explained their reticence on grounds that Israel had threatened the lives of the ship’s captain and crew.
Israel had, in fact, warned that it would act within its rights under international law to bar the ship from Israeli territorial waters.
At a news briefing Sunday, journalists were finally given the name of the ship, and told it was awaiting its passengers at Larnaca.
On Monday however, Sharif summoned another news conference where he announced that the Sol Thryne had suffered damage by an explosive planted in the engine room.
He said a 26-inch hole had been torn in the hull at the waterline.
The “voyage of Return” will still take place, Sharif insisted, but he could not say how long repairs would take. He held the Cypriot authorities responsible for the safety of the vessel. Bittar said no PLO people were guarding it “since this was a peace ship and was not armed.”
He accused Israel of “breaking the law everywhere.”
According to reports from Israel on Monday afternoon, the PLO announced it would seek another ship to replace the Sol Thryne. Arafat’s deputy said plans for the trip have not been abandoned.
A report from Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, said three PLO men killed Sunday in a car-bombing in Limassol had been trying to purchase a ship for the PLO.
Meanwhile, most foreign journalists who had planned to make the voyage have reportedly left Athens.
(Tel Aviv correspondent Hugh Orgel contributed to this story.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.