CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ American passengers of a cruise ship hijacked by Palestinian gunmen flew out of Cairo in a military charter bound for home. The plane, scheduled to refuel at a U.S. air base in West Germany, was running late, officials there said Saturday.

The special U.S. charter would head to Newark, N.J., after a refueling stop at the Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, U.S. officials said.

Operations officers at the air base said the plane had been due to land at 3:30 a.m. Saturday (10:30 p.m. Friday EDT). But Air Force Capt. George Sillia said early Saturday that the flight was running late and had not arrived.

''We'll be getting it on its way as quickly as possible,'' Sillia told The Associated Press.

John Hughes, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said the charter would arrive at Newark International Airport at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Before he left Egypt, Frank Hodes of Springfield, N.J. was asked where he and the other passengers were headed. He replied, ''Home honey, wherever they take us, USA.''

Eleven of the American passengers from the Achille Lauro had been in Cairo since early Friday awaiting departure. They were joined at Cairo International Airport by six other Americans who had left the ship Friday in Port Said.

The six Americans had wanted to continue their Mediterranean cruise to Israel, but Egyptian authorities, without explanation, refused to let the ship sail from Port Said, where the vessel was anchored.

Most of the Americans were aboard the ship when it was commandeered Monday by four Palestinian pirates, who surrendered Wednesday to PLO officials in Port Said.

On Friday, the prosecutor's office in Genoa, Italy, charged the four with murder in the slaying of a crippled American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, 69, of New York.

Klinghoffer's widow, Marilyn, appeared dazed and under sedation when reporters saw her entering a bus at a Cairo hotel for the drive to the airport.

Earlier Friday, U.S. Embassy officials said the Americans were expected to depart Saturday aboard commercial airliners. There was no official explanation for the change in plans.

But American sources, speaking on condition they not be identified, said the change was in the interest of security and to downplay any tension between Egypt and the United States.

Tension arose Thursday night after U.S. warplanes intercepted an Egyptian plane carrying the four Palestinian hijackers to Tunisia and forced it to land in Sicily, Italy, where the gunmen were arrested.

''We wanted to get them (the passengers) out as soon as possible,'' one U.S. source said. ''There was some concern about adverse reaction.''

U.S. sources confirmed the embassy had advised some Americans to stay at home Friday after the U.S. operation had been reported in the Egyptian media.

In Port Said, where the Achille Lauro had been docked since early Thursday, dozens of passengers, including Austrians, West Germans and Spaniards, were leaving the ship, uncertain when it would sail.

Capt. Gerardo de Rosa said Egyptian officials revoked his permit to sail for Israel on Friday. Italian officials said the reason they were given was that the Egyptians were still investigating the hijacking and Klinghoffer's death.

Italian officials said they had no evidence the revocation was in retaliation for the U.S. action in diverting the Egyptian plane and the hijackers to Italy. However, they said there was no indication when the vessel would sail.

Several of the American passengers were not aboard the vessel when it was hijacked, but had been scheduled to get on board at Port Said. They spent one night on the ship after it arrived in the Suez Canal port and then left for Cairo with the former hostages.

One of those who missed the hijacking said he applauded the U.S. action in forcing the hijackers to Italy and Italian justice.

''I think it's very good,'' said Neil Kantor of Metuchen, N.J. before his departure. ''Finally the United States has decided to take some action and I think that in accordance with international law these people should be punished.'' His wife was among the hostages.

In Tel Aviv, about 500 passengers who got off in Alexandria, Egypt, before the hijacking, were stranded and awaiting word on whether the Achille Lauro would sail back to Israel.

Capt. Fausto Vignali, managing director of the Lauro Company which ownes the ship, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview he was ''frustrated and angry'' about Egypt's refusal to allow the ship to leave Port Said.

He said if he did not get word by Saturday morning that the ship had left Egypt for Israel, he would book charter flights for that afternoon to take the passengers back to Rome. The passengers, who were on a shore excursion when the ship was hijacked Monday, were flown to Italy and then to Israel on Thursday.