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Minister: Time to Review Italy’s Laws on Terrorists

March 10, 1996

PALERMO, Sicily (AP) _ Flexible laws that allowed three Palestinian terrorists to disappear _ including the convicted killer of an elderly American Jew during a cruise ship hijacking _ may be ``a mistake″ and should be changed, Italy’s foreign minister said Sunday.

The latest to slip away was the gunman who killed Leon Klinghoffer in his wheelchair and ordered the body dumped into the Mediterranean, where the Italian liner Achille Lauro was hijacked in 1985.

News earlier this month that Youssef Magied al-Molqi failed to return to a Rome prison after a 12-day pass granted for good behavior sparked stern protests from the Clinton administration and Klinghoffer’s family. The U.S. State Department has demanded Italy hunt the terrorist down so he can serve the rest of a 30-year sentence.

Foreign Minister Susanna Agnelli, chairing a European Union ministerial meeting largely taken up by Middle East terrorism, denied that there were tensions between Italy and the United States over his disappearance.

``The United States knows perfectly well it is not due to an (Italian) government decision,″ Agnelli told reporters at the Palermo meeting. She noted that Italy’s justice minister had taken action against the judge who approved the killer’s leave.

Asked if Italy should review its laws on terrorist prisoners, Agnelli said: ``You’re probably right. The law should be changed ... I think it may have been a mistake to have the law, but the law is there and it has to be respected.″

But some officials insists al-Molqi’s flight should not scrap an entire furlough system. ``We have to have the courage to make mistakes,″ said Massimo De Pascalis, head of Italy’s board of prison director.

U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew was quoted in Sunday’s La Stampa, a Turin newspaper, as complaining that the affair ``reopened the wound″ for Americans. In 1991, two others of the four-man commando unit that hijacked the ship also disappeared after receiving similar ``good conduct″ passes.

Italy was put on the spot at an embarrassing time. Rome is using its current term as EU president to spearhead an international anti-terrorism initiative aimed at helping the Middle East peace accords.

But Washington does not intend to ease its demands for al-Molqi’s apprehension. U.S. President Bill Clinton and Italian officials will be at the U.S.-led anti-terrorism conference on Wednesday in an Egyptian resort.

The Achille Lauro ``wound″ dates back to immediately after the hijacking, when the Italians let the accused mastermind leave Italy shortly after a plane carrying the hijackers was forced by U.S. jet fighters to land at a Sicilian air base. The Italian government claimed it only later got evidence that Mohammed Abbas was the ringleader.

Italy has been suspected of treating Arab terrorists leniently because because of extensive economic ties in the Arab world and in hopes terrorists wouldn’t strike Italian interests.

Only one terrorist remains behind bars in Italy for the Achille Lauro hijacking.

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