U.S. Confirms Asking PLO for Aid : Seeks Any Information Group Has on Pan Am Bombing

Times Staff Writer

The United States, seeking widespread assistance in determining who was responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, has asked the Palestine Liberation Organization for any information it can provide, a White House spokesman said Monday.

The PLO representative to whom the request was presented said it would be passed along to Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, U.S. officials said.

The disclosure followed a report in a London newspaper that Arafat had offered such help--an offer, if the report is correct, that U.S. officials have said they know nothing about.


“We’ve not heard from him. If he has anything to tell us, I’m sure he’ll tell us,” President Reagan said Monday morning, in response to questions shouted to him at Los Angeles International Airport as he returned to his new home in Bel-Air after a New Year’s holiday in Rancho Mirage.

While U.S. officials sought to play down the request to the PLO, presenting it as one of numerous requests the government has made for any information about the Dec. 21 crash, it reflects the sudden, tentative steps toward improved relations between the United States and the Palestinian organization that U.S. officials have viewed in the past as playing a major role in Middle East terrorism.

However, although such approaches on the political level are extremely new, the CIA is known to have maintained a liaison with the PLO for many years, and the contacts have occasionally produced useful information.

The U.S. request to the PLO was made Saturday, when Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, held an informal, get-acquainted meeting with the PLO’s representative to Tunisia and the Arab League, Hakam Balaaoui, according to Deputy White House Press Secretary Roman Popadiuk.

Popadiuk said the meeting, held at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, had been set up at Balaaoui’s request. Balaaoui had not attended the Dec. 16 meeting between Pelletreau and two members of the PLO Executive Committee. That meeting broke a 13-year public freeze on contacts between the United States and the PLO. It followed Arafat’s statement in Geneva last month in which he renounced terrorism and met other U.S. conditions for resumed contacts.

“The ambassador took the opportunity to mention that the United States would welcome any information the PLO is able to develop concerning the Pan Am tragedy,” Popadiuk said.

U.S. officials characterized the PLO official’s response as: “Thank you for your views, and I’ll pass it on to Arafat.”

In Cairo, Bassam abu Sharif, spokesman for the PLO, told the Cable News Network that Arafat will cooperate with the investigation but that the PLO chairman has no information yet about who put the bomb aboard the Pan American World Airways jumbo jet. After a midair explosion, the airliner crashed in a Scottish village, killing all 259 people aboard and at least 11 on the ground.

“Chairman Arafat has been very explicit and crystal-clear when he condemned terrorism, all forms of terrorism,” Abu Sharif said. “I don’t think the chairman will come short of helping bring justice against those who are sick in their minds and carried out such operations, although the proof is not yet established who was behind it.”

Popadiuk, the White House spokesman, said the meeting between Pelletreau and Balaaoui centered on Middle East issues. “Since the meeting was called by Mr. Balaaoui, the ambassador was principally in a listening mode,” Popadiuk said.

U.S. officials said Reagan had been informed about the meeting.

The officials, reflecting sensitivity to fears that the U.S.-PLO rapprochement might be moving too fast, took pains to stress that Pelletreau’s remarks to the Palestinian representative were a request for information only, not more substantial assistance. It arose, they said, as the two men discussed various Middle East issues.