President Reagan, savoring the first U.S. display of military might since the invasion of Grenada, warned terrorists today that the mid-flight capture of four Palestinian hijackers who killed an American proves "you can run, but you can't hide."
Reagan, who had often expressed public frustration about the inability to strike back at terrorists without harming innocent people, told a hastily called news conference, "Here was a clear-cut case in which we could lay our hands on the terrorists."
He said neither the Egyptian nor the Italian government had advance word of the interception.
"We did this all by our little selves," he said.
Reagan gave the order aboard Air Force One while returning from Chicago on Thursday afternoon: Rush the aircraft carrier Saratoga into position to launch four Navy F-14s to intercept an Egyptian airliner carrying the Palestinian pirates of an Italian cruise ship and escort it to a joint U.S.-Italian air base in Sicily.
'Civilized Peoples' Welcome It
"All civilized peoples welcome the apprehension of the terrorists responsible for the seizure of (the cruise ship) Achille Lauro and the brutal murder of Leon Klinghoffer," Reagan said in the 12-minute televised news conference.
Immediately afterward, he phoned the family of Klinghoffer, 69, an American tourist paralyzed by a stroke and in a wheelchair, who was shot in the head by the hijackers. Witnesses said Klinghoffer's body, still slumped in the wheelchair, was then thrown into the sea.
The White House said Reagan spoke with Klinghoffer's daughters, Lisa Arbittier and Ilsa Klinghoffer "and told them that he and Mrs. Reagan had them in their prayers."
"The President said that he knew that while the operation last night aimed at bringing the hijackers to justice could not relieve their anguish, that they should be extremely proud of their father," the statement said.
Reagan said a U.S. request to extradite the four suspects, and possibly two associates also held in Italy, "is the proper thing to do. . . . They could be tried in both countries, and in this country they would be tried for murder, where in Italy they will be probably tried on the basis of piracy."
Corrected by McFarlane
Minutes later, however, national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane corrected the President, pointing out that U.S. law covers only hijacking, a crime for which the maximum penalty is life in prison.
Reagan praised American servicemen, diplomats and intelligence officers for their roles in the apprehension of the hijackers.
"These young Americans sent a message to terrorists everywhere. The message--you can run but you can't hide."
Asked if he had been prepared to shoot down the plane carrying the hijackers, Reagan said, "That's for them to go to bed every night wondering."
Reagan expressed appreciation for the role played in the affair by Italy and Egypt and by Tunisia, which refused landing rights to the Egyptian commercial airliner carrying the terrorists to what they thought would be freedom after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised them safe passage.
Want 'Justice Done'
Asked if he wanted two trials or would be satisfied with Italian justice, Reagan said, "That remains to be decided as to how far we go or how far we pursue this. What we want is justice done."
Asked if that meant "death to the hijackers," Reagan said, "Well, I'm just going to say 'justice done.' "
In Genoa, Italy, the port city where the Achille Lauro began its Mediterranean cruise, the prosecutor's office today charged the four Palestinians with premeditated murder, kidnapings, hijacking of a ship and possession of arms and explosives, news agencies reported.
The agencies said the prosecutor's office also issued warrants for the arrest of the four hijackers of the liner, who are already in Italian custody.
Official sources said the plane was preparing to return to Egypt this evening with 19 Arab passengers. The 19 were believed to include a high PLO official and another Palestinian who had reportedly been escorting the hijackers to Tunis.
The plane's departure was delayed, the sources said, while officials checked into suspicions that one of the four hijackers may have tried to escape by switching places with another passenger on the plane.
Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi said Reagan called him during the night to tell him that U.S. jets had intercepted the Egyptian airliner and to ask permission for it to land in Italy.
"Later during the night President Reagan again expressed the desire of the U.S. government to have the hijackers extradited to the United States to submit them to American justice," Craxi said.
"I told him that the crimes had been committed on Italian territory (the Italian ship) and therefore the jurisdiction belonged to Italy. President Reagan agreed with this but told me there would be an American extradition request in respect of the four terrorists."
In Cairo, Egyptian authorities today denied the Achille Lauro permission to leave Port Said minutes before it was to steam to Israel to pick up about 550 passengers waiting to reboard the ship at Ashdod. No explanation was given. However, authorities permitted the departure from the ship of two Spanish and six American passengers, the last Americans remaining on the vessel.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Egypt had negotiated a deal with the terrorists in good faith under which they would be given safe passage out of Egypt to face trial at the hands of the PLO.
"With the utmost sorrow, Egypt was surprised by the interception by U.S. aircraft of the Egyptair plane that was carrying the hijackers of the ship and two members of the Palestine Liberation Organization," it said.
"While condemning the developments, the Arab Republic of Egypt affirms that . . . terrorism only leads to more terrorism and violence."