In a stunning turn of events in the night skies over the Mediterranean late Thursday, U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercepted an Egyptian airliner carrying the four Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise liner and murdered an elderly American tourist, then forced the plane to fly to a U.S. naval base in Sicily, the White House announced.
There, the terrorists were surrounded by a combined force of U.S. and Italian troops and taken into custody by Italian authorities for trial in Italy or possible extradition to the United States.
"This action affirms our determination to see that terrorists are apprehended, prosecuted and punished," White House spokesman Larry Speakes declared in releasing details of the dramatic episode.
"This operation was conducted without firing a shot," he noted, adding that President Reagan--who had approved the bold maneuver step by step throughout the day Thursday--was "extremely pleased with the successful mission."
"We have been assured by the government of Italy that the terrorists will be subject to full due process of law," Speakes said. "For our part, we intend to pursue prompt extradition to the United States of those involved in the crime.
Details of the interception were spelled out by the White House hours after the office of Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi announced in Rome that a chartered Egyptair 737 carrying the four hijackers had landed at Sigonella airfield near Catania, on the Italian island of Sicily, at 12:30 a.m. (Italian time) today, accompanied by four U.S. military escort jets.
While there were indications in Rome that the Italian government may decide to prosecute the hijackers itself, Justice Department officials said this country would rely on a recently passed federal law against taking U.S. citizens hostage in seeking extradition of the four Palestinian terrorists.
The terrorists, thought to be from a radical splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization called the Palestine Liberation Front, seized the liner Achille Lauro off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, last Monday, murdered retired New York businessman Leon Klinghoffer, 69, and dumped his body into the sea before negotiating a surrender to Egyptian authorities outside Port Said on Wednesday.
Reagan Approved Plans
Speakes said the Administration, surmising that the terrorists might attempt to leave Egypt by air, began laying contingency plans for a possible interception and gained approval to act from Reagan during a presidential speaking trip to Chicago on Thursday.
Using this country's extensive electronic and other intelligence capabilities in the Mediterranean, the White House learned that the hijackers left Al Maza airport outside Cairo at 1:15 p.m. PDT aboard the Egyptian chartered jet. The U.S. 6th Fleet then scrambled four F-14s from the aircraft carrier Saratoga, along with an aerial tanker and other support planes, to intercept it in international airspace above the eastern Mediterranean.
Aboard the Egyptian plane when it was forced to land in Sicily were the four terrorists, two other Palestinians, four Egyptian security personnel and the flight crew. Italian authorities are investigating the two unidentified Palestinians; the Egyptians were allowed to fly home.
Earlier, Egyptian authorities had identified the hijackers as Alaa Abdullah Kheshen, 19; Majid Youssef Malaki, 23; Mahmoud Ali Abdullah, 23, and Abdel Latif Ibrahim Fatayer, 20. All were described as students.
Algiers Flight Plan
A White House source said the airliner had filed a flight plan for Algiers, but changed the route to arrive instead at Tunis, Tunisia, where the PLO maintains its headquarters.
Administration officials said the plane was refused permission to land in both Tunis and Athens and then--in the words of Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who gave details of the military operation in a briefing after midnight this morning--"accepted the inevitable" and agreed to obey the instructions from U.S. interceptors.
Speakes said contingency plans had been made in case the Egyptian jet ignored orders to land in Sicily but he refused to discuss what the F-14 pilots would have been ordered to do.
The use of U.S. warplanes to seize hijackers who had slain an American was the Reagan Administration's first successful application of military force against terrorists after five years of frustration in which officials frequently vowed "swift and effective retribution" but found no circumstance that would allow its use.
A Satisfying Mission
Satisfying as the mission was, its feasibility depended so much on special circumstances--including favorable geography, the presence of strong U.S. intelligence assets and the terrorists' lack of a sympathetic host--that it does not necessarily provide a pattern for future action in such situations.
The White House nonetheless used the occasion to declare that it would not hesitate to again use this country's military might where feasible.
The U.S. interception was carried out without the knowledge of the Egyptian government. Speakes categorically denied that any secret deal had been worked out with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had been a target of U.S. criticism and pressure since Egypt began negotiating with the hijackers.
Heated Calls to Cairo
Reagan Administration policy is to oppose all negotiations with terrorists and it had heatedly called on Cairo not to let the men who seized the Achille Lauro, and killed the American passenger, go free.
Although Mubarak had said publicly earlier in the day that the hijackers had left Egypt, a White House source said Washington officials "knew an awful lot" about the hijackers' whereabouts and "it was obvious that Mubarak lied to us."
After the interception, however, Speakes took pains to smooth relations with Egypt. "The United States wants to emphasize the fundamental and durable interests that the United States and Egypt share, interests which transcend this difficult incident," he said. "We will do all we can to assure that the basic U.S.-Egyptian relationship--in which both our countries have taken so much pride for so long--remains unaffected."
Speakes also expressed appreciation to the government of Tunisia for its cooperation in refusing to grant the terrorists safe haven. Tunisian cooperation was particularly appreciated because its relations with Washington had been damaged by the Administration's initial support for Israel's Oct. 1 attack on the PLO's headquarters in Tunis in which at least 60 people were killed.
Large CIA Mission
The U.S. operation was aided by the fact that the hijackers were held in Egypt, a friendly country where the United States has one of its largest embassies--and one of the CIA's largest "stations" in the Middle East. U.S. intelligence officials were able to quickly determine that the hijackers were at the Al Maza military air base east of Cairo and to detect their takeoff.
The Italian prime minister's office earlier had reported that Reagan had asked the Italian government's permission for the American and Egyptian aircrafts to land.
At a early-morning Pentagon briefing, Weinberger called interception "quite a remarkable feat" and called it a show of "firmness and high military skill." The F-14s flew to the intercept point and "hovered" in the darkness, waiting for the Egyptian plane to reach them, Weinberger said.
He refused to say if the F-14s were prepared to use force--including their Phoenix missiles and cannons--to make the Egyptian craft to follow their orders. "That's a hypothetical question that I don't think I'll answer," he told reporters.
Weinberger did say, however, that the U.S. military was "prepared to take action" to seize the cruise liner if the terrorists had not surrendered. He would not elaborate.
Italy, which would presumably have jurisdiction because the murder was committed on a ship carrying its flag, had demanded early Thursday that the PLO turn over the hijackers and started formal extradition proceedings. The government also disclosed that a joint U.S.-Italian rescue mission had been planned before the crisis was resolved; it apparently would have involved slipping commandos aboard the hijacked ship from minisubmarines.
It was unclear whether Italy or the United States would prosecute the hijackers first. Speakes said the Reagan Administration would request immediate extradition, but the Italian news agency ANSA reported today that the Italian government had insisted on its right to try them before agreeing to let the Egyptair flight land on its territory.
Although it is not a federal crime to murder a U.S. citizen overseas, a statute enacted by Congress last year makes it a crime to take an American hostage in a foreign country in a terrorist action. That law is likely to form the basis for the Administration's extradition effort.
In addition, John Barton, a Stanford University law professor who teaches international human rights law, said there is a tradition against piracy that dates from 19th Century. The right to try a pirate is widely recognized and the fact that it occurred outside the United States or on an Italian vessel makes little difference. Italy may have higher right to try them than does this country, he said, but that is no bar to U.S. prosecution.
"Some crimes are so horrible that you can try them anywhere, regardless of where the crime took place, especially (if committed) on the high seas," Barton said.
If brought to trial in this country, he said, they are likely to be tried under a combination of international and U.S. law. Procedural details would follow U.S. statutes, but international treaties would come into play, he said.
The Mubarak government was clearly embarrassed by the swift condemnation it received for not keeping the hijackers in custody until it had been clearly established that the 511 hostages aboard the ship were safe.
At a hastily called news conference, Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid defended Egypt's handling of the surrender. "It is easy to pass judgment now when the situation has been defused," he said. "It is unfair to speak now in this manner after all our efforts."
Both Mubarak and his foreign minister insisted Thursday that the government had relied on information provided by the captain of the ship, Gerardo de Rosa, when it decided to go ahead with the release of the gunmen.
Meguid produced a tape recording of a ship-to-shore telephone conversation in which the captain was quoted as saying that "my officers and everybody are in good health."
Italian Prime Minister Craxi, however, announced shortly after the surrender that the hijackers had killed Klinghoffer. He said he had received word of the death from De Rosa, who learned Tuesday from a terrorist in bloody clothing that the hijackers had shot Klinghoffer, then pushed him and his wheelchair overboard.
"When we accepted the hijackers' surrender, we did not have this information," Mubarak said Thursday. "This information emerged five hours after the surrender."
Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Don A. Schanche in Rome, Charles P. Wallace in Cairo and Michael Ross in Tunis; Doyle McManus, Josh Getlin, Ronald J. Ostrow, Gaylord Shaw and Michael Wines in Washington, and Edward Chen in Los Angeles.