Several witnesses to the murder of retired New York businessman Leon Klinghoffer are expected to appear before a federal grand jury that begins hearing testimony here today on the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, sources familiar with the evidence said Wednesday.
The testimony by "eyewitnesses and close to eyewitnesses," as one source described them, will buttress medical evidence that Klinghoffer was shot by the four Palestinian gunmen.
The witnesses, who are expected to appear next week, include an unidentified bartender aboard the cruise liner and the ship's captain, Gerardo de Rosa, according to the sources, who spoke on condition that they not be named. The vessel pulled into Genoa, Italy, on Wednesday night.
The sources declined to say whether the witnesses saw the actual slaying last week or the subsequent dumping of Klinghoffer's body into the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, U.S. Embassy spokesman John Burgess said in Damascus, Syria, that Klinghoffer's corpse had "at least two" gunshot wounds, confirming accounts from other passengers on the cruise liner that he was shot and hurled into the sea Oct. 8 as the ship steamed near the Syrian coast.
The corpse, which was washed ashore near the port of Tartus, was positively identified as Klinghoffer's body early Wednesday. It was then flown to Rome in a wooden casket draped in a U.S. flag and escorted by Syrian military police and by U.S. Ambassador William Eagleton.
The body was taken to Rome's Institute for Forensic Medicine for a formal autopsy that will determine the cause of death and the time Klinghoffer died. The results may be released today.
The four hijackers of the Achille Lauro are being held in an Italian prison on charges of murder and kidnaping for commandeering the ocean liner near Port Said, Egypt, on Oct. 7.
Burgess, the embassy spokesman, said the identification of the body was made at Tishrin Military Hospital in Damascus by Syrian pathologists and an FBI agent who was sent from Rome after earlier attempts to identify the corpse were unsuccessful.
The identification was made conclusively from fingerprint and dental X-ray information as well as physical characteristics such as hair color, Burgess said.
Klinghoffer, who was 69, had been confined to a wheelchair after suffering two strokes. His death on the Achille Lauro prompted the Reagan Administration to use U.S. planes to intercept an EgyptAir jet that was carrying the hijackers out of Cairo after they had surrendered to Egyptian authorities.
The Palestine Liberation Front, a small guerrilla faction to which the four hijackers are believed to belong, had denied that Klinghoffer was murdered by the Palestinians. It suggested that he may have suffered a heart attack.
Burgess said that the preliminary examination carried out in Damascus did not establish a cause of death. One possibility was that Klinghoffer was still alive, though mortally wounded, when he was thrown into the sea from an upper deck of the ship.
It is thought that none of the passengers aboard the Achille Lauro witnessed the shooting. According to most accounts, Klinghoffer was separated from the rest of the passengers by the gunmen and taken to a forward deck on Oct. 8. A short time later, passengers reported hearing two gunshots and a "double splash," presumed to be his body and wheelchair being thrown into the water.
U.S. officials said no bullets were believed to have been found in the body. There were thought to be entry and exit wounds for two gunshots.
Klinghoffer's body was said to be in "very, very bad condition," the embassy spokesman said. If the corpse washed ashore on Sunday, as reported by the Syrians, it had been in the water for five days.
U.S. officials said the Syrian government was particularly helpful in arranging the identification of Klinghoffer's remains.
Meanwhile, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III told a news conference that the United States has "hard evidence" showing the complicity in the hijacking of Abul Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Front faction leader who was released from Italian custody after the capture of the four Palestinian hijackers.
Meese declined to disclose the nature of the evidence against Abbas on grounds that it could prejudice a future trial. But other sources described it as primarily electronic "intercepts" of messages between the hijackers and Abbas provided by Israeli intelligence. Israel's military intelligence chief Wednesday released a partial transcript of one of those conversations.
One source said that the evidence is "far, far beyond" what a prosecutor normally would need to convince a magistrate that there was probable cause to charge an individual with a crime.
Knowledge of Terrorism
To conduct the grand jury investigation, Justice Department officials have assigned a prosecutor experienced in handling international terrorist matters, Lawrence Barcella of the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, and Karen Morrissette of the department's criminal division.
Although the grand jury could return indictments against the four hijackers being held for trial in Italy, it is not clear that they could be tried in the United States after the Italian proceedings. On Wednesday, Meese said the issue of whether this would place the defendants in legal "double jeopardy" would have to be considered.
Meese brushed aside suggestions that the United States might have failed to provide Italy with evidence implicating Abbas before the Italians released him Saturday.
Normally, he said, two conditions must be met to have a person provisionally arrested for extradition, and the United States met both of them. The conditions include the existence of a basis for extradition--in this case, a complaint filed in a U.S. court--and identification of the suspect.
Meese said he informed Italy's Interior Ministry on Friday night that "a complaint had been filed here and an arrest warrant had been issued and that full information would be provided to them immediately. . . ." In return, he said, the Italians promised they "would take the necessary action."
Ronald J. Ostrow reported from Washington and Charles P. Wallace from Amman, Jordan. Times staff writer Rudy Abramson also contributed in Washington.