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Palestinian Retracts His Achille Lauro Confession

United Press International

The Palestinian who led the Achille Lauro hijacking retracted Thursday his confession to killing American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and contended that he was framed by Syrian and U.S. intelligence agents.

Youssef Molki, testifying on the second day of the trial of 15 defendants accused in the Oct. 7-9 hijacking of the Italian liner, admitted he led the seizure while the ship cruised off the coast of Egypt.

But he denied his earlier confession to killing the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer on Oct. 8.

“I didn’t see him. I didn’t kill him,” Molki, 23, told Judge Lino Monteverde. “None of the commandos shot the American, not even myself.

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“This is a setup,” Molki said. “This is a game between Syria and America.”

Judge Skeptical

Voicing skepticism, Monteverde said the court will hear testimony from two Achille Lauro crew members who said they were forced to throw the body of the 69-year-old New Yorker overboard. Klinghoffer’s body was recovered when it washed up on the Syrian coast.

He also read from Molki’s confession: “I went down to where the hostages were and forced a Portuguese steward to take the American to an isolated deck of the ship. I fired two shots--one in the head and one in the heart.”

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The judge said Molki changed his version of events seven times in depositions before trial. “How do you expect people to believe you?” he asked.

“I don’t know what they put in those statements. I was tired. It was evening. I was given injections to put me to sleep,” Molki said later under questioning by Prosecutor Luigi Carli.

10 Remain at Large

While Molki testified for 2 1/2 hours in an underground courtroom at the Palace of Justice, four other Palestinians watched the proceedings from behind the steel bars of courtroom cages. Ten other defendants are still at large.

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Molki denied the charge in the indictment that the terrorists planned to seize the ship in order to trade hostages for Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

“We wanted to carry out a suicide operation against the Israelis at the port of Ashdod,” Molki said.

But, he said, they were forced into the hijacking because a steward surprised three Palestinians cleaning their weapons in a cabin.

“Long live the Palestinian cause. Long live Arafat,” he shouted as paramilitary carabinieri led him from the courtroom.

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