Veliotes Denies He Quit in Dispute Over Hijacking Incident
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Nicholas Veliotes today denied reports that he is quitting because of differences with Egyptian and American officials over his handling of the Achille Lauro hijacking.
Veliotes, 57, is leaving the government after 31 years with the State Department, and a diplomatic source had told The Associated Press that he was forced out after a shouting match with Secretary of State George Shultz.
The ambassador is expected to become president of the American Association of Publishers.
He grabbed headlines during the hijacking last October for insisting, on an open radio channel, that Egyptian officials arrest the Arab pirates responsible and ″prosecute those sons of bitches″ for allegedly slaying an American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
In a television interview Friday morning, Veliotes said that ″any suggestion that I am retiring because of unhappiness with my Egyptian friends is as ridiculous as the report that I am retiring because George Shultz and I are supposed to have shouted at each other.″
″I think that the secretary of state has made clear that wasn’t the case and I welcome this opportunity to thank him and President Reagan for the opportunity to serve as assistant secretary of state as well as ambassador for the last five years.″
Rather than prosecuting the hijackers, as Veliotes demanded, the Egyptian government attempted to fly them to Tunisia and hand them over the Palestine Liberation Organization. However, U.S. fighters intercepted the plane and forced it to land in Italy, where the gunmen face murder and hijacking charges.
Also aboard the Egyptian plane, but released by Italian authorities, was Mohammed Abbas, described by U.S. officials as the mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking.
The American action, and Veliotes’ angry outburst, strained normally friendly U.S.-Egyptian relations.
Veliotes, recalling his decades as a diplomat, said ″It has been a fascinating period. I wouldn’t have exchanged one day... But there comes a time when you should be thinking about something else. I am a strong believer in second careers. And the Association of American Publishers has made this possible for us.″
Veliotes said that another person, acting in his place during the hijacking crisis, ″might have done it better, done it differently. The only problem is that when you are in the middle of one of these, there isn’t much time for reflection as to how you are going to be viewed after the fact. You exercise your judgement and you go with it.″