Israel's military intelligence chief on Wednesday released what he said was a partial transcript of a ship-to-shore conversation proving that Abul Abbas, head of a Palestine Liberation Organization faction loyal to Chairman Yasser Arafat, was directly involved in the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
Israel also disclosed grisly new details about the terrorists' murder of Leon Klinghoffer, 69, a retired Jewish businessman from New York.
The Israeli official, Maj. Gen. Ehud Barak, described in a television interview how a Portuguese cleaning worker and the ship's barber were forced at gunpoint to throw Klinghoffer's body overboard after he was shot and then to wash away all traces of his blood.
Link to Arafat Pushed
The information was released here as part of an Israeli campaign to lay the blame for the hijacking directly at Arafat's door. Israel has described the PLO as the biggest obstacle to Middle East peace and contended that once Arafat's role in the Achille Lauro incident was known, Jordan's King Hussein should abandon his peace initiative with Arafat and pursue separate peace talks with Jerusalem.
While the transcript released here Wednesday supports Israel's version of last week's events on the cruise liner, it seems to fall short of being the "smoking gun" that proves the involvement of either Abbas or Arafat.
Israel contends that Abbas not only knew the four Palestinian gunmen who seized the ship, but that he had commissioned them to undertake a terrorist mission during the Achille Lauro's scheduled stop in the Israeli port of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv. The four were reportedly discovered cleaning their weapons on board the ship, soon after it left Alexandria, Egypt, and decided instead to hijack the vessel.
The transcript is reputedly part of a ship-to-shore conversation on Oct. 9, the day the gunmen finally released the ship and its passengers and came ashore in Port Said to surrender. They were promised safe passage out of Egypt, but U.S. fighter planes forced the Egyptian airliner flying them to safety to land in Sicily. The hijackers are now in Italian custody.
In the conversation, Abbas, using the pseudonym Abu Khaled, said to a hijacker named Majed: "Listen to me well. First of all, the passengers should be treated very well. In addition, you must apologize to them and the ship's crew and to the captain, and tell them our objective was not to take control of the ship. Tell them what your main objective is. . . . Can you hear me well?"
No speaker quoted in the transcript or heard in tape recordings broadcast by Israel television Wednesday explained the mission's "objective" or referred to any terrorist act.
One well-informed Israeli source said there were arguments within the military over whether to release the transcript. "We had some hard thoughts about the usefulness of this conversation," a source conceded. "It doesn't really prove the motives or the aim" of the hijackers.
Military sources said that while the army released only a partial transcript of what Israeli intelligence had recorded, there was nothing in the unreleased portions that contradicted the impression of collusion left by the portion that was published.
The sources also said that Abbas' involvement is substantiated by "supplementary (intelligence) information that we're not revealing."
Interviewed on Israeli television Wednesday night, Barak, the intelligence chief, said of Abbas: "We have no doubt that he is involved up to his neck. We have wide-ranging evidence connecting him to it (the Achille Lauro affair). Most of it is too sensitive to reveal to the public."
The four hijackers identified themselves as members of the Palestine Liberation Front, a PLO faction that itself is divided into three splinter groups. Abbas heads a splinter group loyal to Arafat, and it was in that connection that he was dispatched to Port Said to negotiate with the hijackers, according to the PLO. Arafat has condemned the hijacking and denied any involvement in the affair.
Israeli military sources contend that another segment of the transcript released here Wednesday proves that Abul Abbas knew the hijackers personally. A speaker, identified as Abu Khaled (Abbas), asked: "Who is speaking? Is this Majed?"
"Right, right," replied a man identified as Majed.
"How are you, Majed?"
"Good, thank God," the terrorist replied.
Abbas, 38, was also aboard the Egyptian airliner carrying the four hijackers to Tunis when it was intercepted by the American planes. The U.S. Justice Department issued an arrest warrant for Abbas, and Washington asked the Italian authorities to hold him for extradition to the United States.
However, the Italians said they did not have enough evidence to detain him, and he was allowed to leave Italy for Yugoslavia on Saturday despite vigorous American protests.
Denial by Abbas
Abbas, in an interview broadcast Tuesday in Rome, denied that he masterminded the hijacking, saying, "I was only responsible for the mediation and freeing the ship."
Military sources in Israel stressed Wednesday that their intelligence had transmitted to both Italy and the United States a transcript of the intercepted ship-to-shore conversation on the same day it occurred. "It proves Italy knew of the Abbas connection before letting him go," the sources said.