Achille Lauro Nears Home, Investigators Board Off Sicily
GENOA, Italy (AP) _ The cruise liner Achille Lauro steamed toward port today, two weeks after setting sail for a Mediterranean tour that turned into a terrorist hijacking and left an American passenger dead.
Families of crew members, many of whom arrived aboard a special train chartered by the shipping company Flotta Lauro, gathered to greet the ship.
Italian investigators boarded the returning ship late Tuesday as it passed northward through the Strait of Messina, which separates Italy and Sicily. They said they planned to question Capt. Gerardo De Rosa about the Oct. 7 hijacking and crewmembers who may have have witnessed the death of Leon Klinghoffer, 69, of New York.
The four Palestinian hijackers under arrest in Italy have been charged with murdering Klinghoffer, but judicial sources say the four have denied killing the man.
In Damascus, Syria, the U.S. Embassy today said a decomposed body that washed ashore near the Syrian port of Tartus is that of Klinghoffer.
″We have confirmed that the body is that of Leon Klinghoffer,″ spokesman John Burgess told reporters. Burgess said ″there apparently were two gunshot wounds in the corpse.″
The Italian news agency ANSA quoted Genoa magistrate Francesco Meloni as saying investigators hoped to complete their investigation into the death of Klinghoffer and the hijacking before the ship arrived in port. He was quoted as saying the ship is scheduled to depart on another cruise Thursday.
In Rome, Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini withdrew from the government in disagreement over Premier Bettino Craxi’s handling of the hijacking.
He had refused to support a government statement justifying the release of Palestinian guerrilla leader Mohammed Abbas. Spadolini’s withdrawal from the government appeared certain to lead to the fall of the 26-month-old coalition of five parties.
The four hijackers say they are members of the Palestine Liberation Front, Abbas’ faction of the PLO, and the United States has accused Abbas of being behing the hijacking. Abbas has denied it.
″There are no new elements ... I said I would not vote on any document which implies in any way the approval of what happened in the Abbas case,″ said Spadolini.
Abbas was aboard the Egyptian jetliner carrying the hijackers that was diverted to Sicily by U.S. Navy jets last week. He was allowed to leave Italy for Yugoslavia on Saturday. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Spadolini, who heads the Republican Party, boycotted an inner-cabinet meeting Monday to protest Abbas’ release.
His stance fueled concern that the Republican Party, the third largest in the five-party coalition, would withdraw its three ministers from the 30- member cabinet, thus toppling the government, one of Italy’s longest- lasting since World War II.
A parliamentary session on the Achille Lauro affair was called for Thursday.
The four hijackers were transferred from Sicily to a maximum security prison in Spoleto, 80 miles north of Rome, officials said Tuesday.
Genoa’s chief prosecutor, Gennaro Calabrese De Feo, issued arrest warrants for two more Palestinians, bring the number of people charged in the hijacking to seven. He would not identify them or say whether they were in custody.
However, Italian news agencies said one of the two had been on the Achille Lauro and got off in Alexandria, Egypt, before the hijacking, and that the other had bought the cruise tickets in Genoa.
On Monday, Genoa prosecutors charged a jailed Palestinian with conspiracy to hijack and kidnapping, a judicial source said.
Prosecutors said the accused hijackers were questioned for four hours Monday before being transferred. They had been held in Siracusa since Saturday, when they were moved from the U.S. Naval airbase Sigonella, near Catania.