Yasser Arafat said Thursday that the Palestine Liberation Organization was not involved in an attempted guerrilla attack on Israel's coastline, but he avoided condemning the act outright.
The Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), a faction of the PLO, claimed responsibility for the attempted raid Wednesday. Israeli forces foiled the raid as the guerrillas headed for the Israeli coast in speedboats.
The PLF is headed by Mohammed Abbas, better known as Abul Abbas.
Asked whether he would expel Abbas from the elected PLO Executive Committee for the attempted raid, Arafat said: "He was elected in a democratic way by the Palestine National Council, and only the council has a say on that."
Arafat, chairman of the PLO and recognized by Arab countries as president of a Palestinian state, said, "We are a democratic organization, and decisions should be taken democratically."
The PLF said in a statement from Baghdad on Thursday that it will follow up the latest raid with more.
"The front will continue to apply its program of . . . struggle in confronting Zionism until the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people are realized," it said.
Israeli officials have urged the United States to suspend its 17-month dialogue with the PLO, saying the raid proved that Arafat has violated his 1988 pledge to renounce terrorism.
The White House on Thursday rebuffed Israel's plea but condemned the raid as a "cowardly attempt to target innocent people."
"We are deeply concerned about the responsibility for this attack, and we are looking into it," said White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater.
"We don't have any conclusions at this point. We are investigating this matter and reviewing all the information we can gather on it. We are very concerned about what the ramifications might be, but at this point we do not want to express any conclusions."
Asked if continued discussions with the PLO are under review in light of the fact that the Administration has conditioned such talks on the group's renunciation of terrorism, Fitzwater said, "No, not at this point."
Israeli officials claim that Abbas met with Arafat in Tunisia five days before the attempted raid.
Asked whether he condemned the raid, Arafat told reporters, "We in the PLO are not responsible for the operation, and we have no connection with it."
Asked again if he could give a flat statement condemning the raid, Arafat responded, "What I declared was clear and obvious."
The PLF is known for its 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro, in which Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American man in a wheelchair, was killed and his body thrown overboard.
Arafat said the raid could be used by Israel as a pretext to attack Arab countries in retaliation, even though no Israeli casualties were reported Wednesday. Four Palestinian guerrillas were killed and 12 were captured.
He named Iraq, Libya, Jordan and south Lebanon as possible targets for Israeli revenge.
Arafat accused Israel of frustrating all efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and blamed caretaker Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's policies toward the Palestinians as being the main cause behind tension and instability in the area.