President Reagan on Tuesday gave a one-word response to President Hosni Mubarak's demand for a public U.S. apology for forcing an Egyptian airliner to land in Italy with the hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro: "Never."
The blunt reply, uttered sternly at the Boise airport where Reagan was cheered for last week's U.S. interception of the plane carrying the Palestinian terrorists to freedom, seemed certain to aggravate an already serious setback in U.S. relations with both Egypt and Italy.
Although it had been learned earlier that no apology would be made for the diversion of the Egyptian plane, the Administration had carefully avoided commenting on Mubarak's angry demand until Reagan was able to make his response.
Despite Reagan's conciliatory personal letter to the Egyptian leader, Mubarak demanded a public apology Monday for what he earlier called "an act of piracy," by U.S. Navy jets.
The President, arriving here to make a political speech in support of Sen. Steve Symms (R-Ida.), was cheered by a crowd of about 1,000 people.
As he was entering his limousine, he brushed aside with a "no comment" a question on the state of U.S.-Egyptian relations. A reporter then asked whether the United States had reason to apologize for forcing the Egyptian plane to land, and Reagan replied: "Never."
However, U.S. officials have declined to criticize Mubarak personally, even though they have made it clear that the United States disagreed with Egypt's decision to grant the terrorists safe passage in exchange for their surrender of the Italian liner and the more than 500 hostages aboard.
They also said that they believed that Egypt made the decision before Mubarak's government knew that Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old American passenger, had been killed by the hijackers and his body thrown overboard.
Ham Radio Interception
En route to Boise, White House spokesman Larry Speakes confirmed reports that a ham radio operator overheard the conversation between Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger that led to the President's order for the interception of the plane carrying the four Palestinian hijackers last Thursday.
According to the reports, Weinberger had seemed to oppose Reagan's order to force the plane to land, pointing out that such a step would anger the Egyptian government.
Speakes told reporters aboard Air Force One that the mission had in no way been jeopardized by the conversation's being overheard. He said the conversation took place on an open channel, rather than one that scrambled voices, simply to save time.
Earlier, it was reported that the open channel was used because the scrambler aboard Air Force One was broken.
Reagan's flat rejection of a public apology to Egypt was the latest example of Administration efforts to toughen its stance on terrorism after the Achille Lauro hijacking.
In Brussels, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, at a press conference after attending a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting Tuesday, defended the steps taken by the United States as necessary in the fight against terrorism. He indignantly rejected a question suggesting that America itself had employed a terrorist method when it used armed aircraft to force down the hijackers' plane.
At the same time, U.S. officials vowed to continue pursuing Palestine Liberation Front leader Abul Abbas, who was allowed to leave Italy for Yugoslavia on Saturday.
Abbas, accused by the United States of masterminding the hijacking, was aboard the Egyptian plane carrying the four Palestinians that was intercepted by the American jets, but the Italian government refused to hold him. Officials in Yugoslavia, where he fled from Italy, have also indicated they will not detain him.
Ironically, as relations with such U.S. friends as Italy and Egypt have been strained by the hijacking and its immediate repercussions, the crisis seems to have contributed to a warming of the once-frozen relations with Syria.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman praised the Damascus government for its help in efforts to determine if the body of an elderly man that washed ashore on the coast of Syria is that of Klinghoffer.