A ferryboat hired to carry Palestinian deportees back to Israel on a symbolic protest voyage was damaged by an explosion Monday in the Cypriot port of Limassol.
A spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization in Athens accused Israeli agents of causing the explosion, which put a hole in the vessel at its waterline, causing it to take on water and list about 10 degrees.
A caller claiming to speak for an Israeli extremist organization claimed responsibility for bombing the 6,151-ton Sol Phryne in its home port.
"We are Kach International. We are responsible for the bomb in Limassol," a man said in a call to a news agency in Nicosia. In Israel, however, a Kach spokesman denied knowledge of the claim.
The Kach organization was founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, now a member of the Israeli Parliament, who in the early 1960s established the militant Jewish Defense League in the United States.
Another individual, in an anonymous call to the Associated Press in Nicosia, said: "The JDL is responsible for the bombing at Limassol. This is only a warning. Next time we will bomb it with all the people on it."
In Los Angeles, Jewish Defense League National Chairman Irv Rubin said, "We're not taking responsibility, but we feel honored that we were blamed for it."
Rubin praised the bombing as a "righteous act" and added: "I wholeheartedly applaud it. It was a wonderful, wonderful action. It was God's work."
The first caller said a bomb had been planted in a car inside the ferry, but a source who examined the damaged ship said it appeared that the hole was caused from the outside.
A senior PLO official interviewed in Nicosia said: "It was an underwater blast caused by a mine that was stuck, probably by frogmen, onto the vessel. It was attached to a time fuse."
Cypriot officials said it would take several days to repair the damage to the ship.
The "ship of return" was organized by the PLO as a symbolic voyage to express solidarity with people in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The planned voyage of the ferryboat--renamed Al Awda, or The Return--carries echoes of the 1947 trip of the French ship Exodus, in which Jewish refugees from Nazi death camps were turned back by British forces as they tried to emigrate to Palestine.
The 130 Palestinian deportees include taxi drivers, laborers, a university professor, an Anglican bishop and several mayors and city council members. They have assembled in Athens, planning to fly to Cyprus to begin their voyage.
The voyage is supposed to end in Haifa, but Israeli officials have said they will not let the vessel enter their waters.
Early Monday, the deportees plus hundreds of international supporters and journalists were taken in buses to Athens airport and were told they would be flown to Cyprus to board the boat.
After news of the blast reached Athens, most returned to their hotels.
"It is clear that Israel did it as they are the only ones concerned," Fuad Bittar, head of the PLO mission in Athens, said of the bombing at a hastily arranged press conference.
The blast came less than 24 hours after a car bomb on the Limassol waterfront killed three senior PLO officials who were reportedly involved in plans for the voyage. A PLO source said that was a warning from Israel to cancel the ship's journey.
Capt. Cleanthus Vlahopoulos, the Greek skipper of the 40-year-old Sol Phryne, told reporters in Limassol that he and his 52-member crew, mostly Arabs, were on board at 5:30 a.m. when the blast awakened them.
They quickly disembarked and no one was hurt, he said, adding that the ship was listing and could not sail.
Vlahopoulos said he had no idea who the ship's owners were or whether any voyage was planned.
An official of the Cyprus admiralty court told a reporter that the Sol Phryne was bought on Saturday by the Karpathos Ship Co. for $600,000, more than had been expected.
Tracing Efforts Fail
He said he had not heard of the firm before and that independent efforts to trace it have failed.
"The journey will still go ahead after the ship is repaired," PLO official Bittar said in Athens.
Originally, the trip to Haifa was to have begun in Greece last Tuesday, but it was postponed several times as the PLO struggled to find a ship. PLO officials blamed threats from Israel, which has strongly criticized the plan, for their lack of success.