Israel began formal proceedings Thursday to extradite three pro-Palestinian gunmen accused of storming a yacht in the marina at Larnaca, Cyprus, the day before and shooting to death three Israelis on board.
The bodies of the victims--Reuven Palzur, 53, his wife Esther, 50, and family friend Avraham Anvery, 55--were flown home by military transport Thursday evening. A district court in Larnaca earlier ordered the three suspects held in police custody for eight days pending further investigation.
Meanwhile, there were more conflicting reports on whether the suspects were members of any organized Palestinian group.
A Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said that Israel transmitted a formal request for extradition to its embassy in Nicosia late Thursday and it was expected that the document would be handed over to Cypriot officials by today.
Because there is no extradition treaty between the two countries, Israel's request was made under provisions of the European Charter for Prevention of Terrorism, approved by the Council of Europe in 1976, the ministry official said.
Both Israel and Cyprus ratified that pact, which specifically envisions an extradition request when citizens of one signatory country are attacked on the territory of another. Although Israel may request extradition, there is nothing in the pact requiring Cyprus to agree.
Sources here doubted that Nicosia would risk Palestinian anger by handing the three suspects over to the Israelis.
The charter has never before been invoked between Israel and Cyprus, the Foreign Ministry official acknowledged. Israel did invoke the agreement in a 1979 attempt to extradite an accused Palestinian terrorist held by France, but the French rejected the request.
Concern About Pressure
Israel is eager to extradite the Palestinians because there is concern that Cyprus might release them under pressure.
The three men accused of the yacht attack were identified in a Larnaca courtroom Thursday as Elias Yehia Nassif, 24, Mahmoud Khaled Abdallah, 24, and George Hanna, 27, all of Lebanon.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry official said the three identified themselves as members of a group called Force 17 during interrogation by Cypriot authorities. Force 17 is said to be an elite strike unit within the Palestine Liberation Organization, formed originally to guard PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
An anonymous caller Wednesday told Agence France-Presse, the French press agency, in Jerusalem that Force 17 was responsible for the attack.
However, PLO officials in Cyprus and Tunis denied that the organization had anything to do with the affair.
During a nearly 10-hour siege of the Israeli yacht, which began before dawn Wednesday, the gunmen demanded the release of more than a dozen Palestinians captured by the Israeli navy in an action off the Lebanese coast last month. Israeli military sources said the captured Palestinians were members of Force 17 and included the unit's deputy commander, Faisal abu Shar.
Force 17 is one of the PLO units that Israel says has relocated in Jordan in recent months--a development that Jerusalem has warned repeatedly could endanger the unspoken peace between Jordan and Israel and threaten King Hussein's position in Amman.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry official appeared anxious Thursday to head off any speculation that the yacht attack could trigger retaliation against Jordan, however.
"We know that Force 17 has headquarters in Amman, but we don't know where these three got their orders," he said.
The official also denied suggestions that the three murdered Israelis were government agents spying on Palestinian movements in Cyprus.
"These were innocent civilians who were trying to have a good time," he said.
Cypriot police said that the gunmen shot Esther Palzur as they boarded the Israeli yacht at about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday and that they left her nightgown-clad body slumped over a guardrail during the balance of the siege.
It is unclear exactly when the two Israeli men were killed, but police said their bodies were found inside the cabin, bound, blindfolded and with bullet wounds in the back of their heads.
An official Israeli communique pledged that "the murderers and those who sent them will not escape punishment."
Meanwhile, gunmen fired automatic weapons at an Israeli bus in the occupied West Bank on Thursday night, wounding seven passengers, both Jews and Arabs, a military source in Tel Aviv said.
There was no information on the condition of the wounded.
The bus was traveling between Halhoul and Hebron, south of Jerusalem, the source said.