Plane With Palestinian Hijackers Forced Down in Italy where they’ll be tried. URGENT
ROME (AP) _ An Egyptian plane carrying four Palestinian ship hijackers blamed for killing an American landed at a NATO base in Sicily Friday, the government said. U.S. warplanes intercepted its flight to Tunisia and forced it down, Washington officials said.
The hijackers were taken off the military aircraft and will be tried in Italy, a spokesman for Premier Bettino Craxi’s office told The Associated Press. ″They are already in the hands of Italian authorities, the carabinieri (military police),″ he said.
″The (Egyptian) plane will leave for Egypt, but the terrorists will stay here to be tried here,″ said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
During the flight from Cairo, the Tunisian government - apparently heeding a U.S. request to deny the hijackers sanctuary - refused the Egyptian plane permission to land in that North African country, said U.S. administration and intelligence sources in Washington. They did not explain how the Boeing 737 was forced down.
An Italian government statement said President Reagan had asked Craxi to let the plane land in Sicily, and Craxi agreed, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. Craxi’s spokesman confirmed to the AP that the premier received a call from the White House, but did not know what was said.
The aircraft touched down at Sicily’s Sigonella airport, a NATO base near Catania, at 12:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. Thursday EDT), said Craxi’s spokesman.
He said the plane was escorted by U.S. military aircraft, but he did not know how many.
The Washington sources, who also demanded anonymity, said that after the Egyptian jetliner landed, the plane was surrounded by U.S. Navy SEALS, a specially trained combat unit.
Italian news agencies quoted Foreign Ministry sources as saying there had been a series of contacts between Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti and Egyptian and American officials.
The pirates took over the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, on Monday afternoon off Port Said, Egypt. They held it captive, with more than 500 passengers and crew, in the Mediterranean Sea for two days.
During that time, Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old Jew from New York City who was confined to a wheelchair and had a heart condition, was killed and his body dumped in the ocean.
After failing at attempts to make port in other countries, the hijackers returned to Egypt and surrendered Wednesday afternoon to Palestine Liberation Organization officials. They were taken to the Port Said navy base, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he had allowed them to fly out of the country Wednesday night.
He said they were the PLO’s responsibility.
Craxi on Thursday said Italy would seek the extradition of the hijackers after a preliminary investigation. Italian news agencies, quoting unidentified sources, said Italy had asked the PLO to turn over the four men because a murder had occurred on an Italian ship.
PLO chariman Yasser Arafat told reporters Wednesday night in Tunis, Tunisia he had asked Egypt to deliver the men to him for judgment and punishment, and the PLO insisted Thursday it had not received custody of the pirates.
Arafat said the PLO had nothing to do with hijacking the ship while it was bound from Alexandria to Port Said. The hijackers threatened to kill the passengers and blow it up unless Israel released 50 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel said no government asked it to release the prisoners, and it did not. Israeli officials said Thursday they had little doubt that Arafat knew the Palestinian gunmen would be on the ship, for a planned attack in Ashdod, Israel, the next port of call after Port Said. But the plan was changed to a hijacking, they said, when the gunmen were discovered.
The liner steamed into Port Said early Thursday with the former hostages aboard, nine hours after the hijackers surrendered and were taken off. Italy’s Foreign Ministry said there were 511 crew and passengers aboard.
The ship’s captain, Gerardo de Rosa, said after he was freed that the Palestinian pirates had killed Klinghoffer.
Mubarak said Thursday that the hijackers had already been sent out of Egypt when he heard the captain’s report, although the hijackers had said in radio reports from the ship, monitored in Syria on Tuesday, that they had killed at least one person.
″There is no body and no proof he had been murdered. ... Maybe the man was in hiding or did not board the ship at all,″ the official Middle East News Agency quoted Mubarak as saying.
Giuseppe Peduto, the Italian consul in Port Said, said that officially, Klinghoffer’s case is being treated as a ″disappearance,″ pending the outcome of an investigation.
Nicholas Veliotes, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, said Wednesday: ″Our position is that these are murderers. There should be a full investigation, and they should be prosecuted according to the laws of Egypt like any other criminals.″
Marilyn Klinghoffer, 58, who had been traveling with her husband, left the Achille Lauro with 10 other Americans and went to a Cairo hotel. She and some of the other Americans were heading home.
Jim Moore, a U.S. Embassy official, said six Americans chose to continue the cruise.
Most of the 550 passengers who left the ship in Alexandria for an overland trip, before the hijacking, arrived in Israel Thursday to rejoin the ship when it reaches Ashdod. Some had flown to Rome while the ship was being held.
De Rosa, the captain, said Wednesday night that a terrorist admitted killing Klinghoffer the day before. ″They told me shortly after they killed him, I think, because the Palestinian who killed him had pants and shoes covered with blood,″ he said.
Italian Ambassador Giovanni Migliuolo, who spent hours aboard the ship talking with passengers and crew, told the Italian news agency ANSA how Klinghoffer was murdered Tuesday afternoon:
″The hijackers made all the British and American civilians lie down, among whom was Leon Klinghoffer. The hijackers pushed him onto his wheelchair and dragged it to the side of the boat where, in cold blood, they shot him in the face. The corpse was then thrown into the sea along with the wheelchair.″
De Rosa said the four pirates took over at about 1:30 p.m. Monday, firing Soviet-made submachine guns and brandishing hand grenades and other explosives.
The terrorists said they belonged to the Palestine Liberation Front, one of eight groups in the PLO. It split into three factions during a 1983 revolt against Arafat.