WASHINGTON — In a stunning turn of events in the night skies over the Mediterranean late Thursday, U.S. Navy F-14 fighters intercepted an Egyptian airliner carrying the four Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise liner and murdered an elderly American tourist, then forced the plane to fly to a U.S. naval base in Sicily, the White House announced.
There, the terrorists were surrounded by a combined force of U.S. and Italian troops and taken into custody by Italian authorities for trial in Italy or possible extradition to the United States.
"This action affirms our determination to see that terrorists are apprehended, prosecuted and punished," White House spokesman Larry Speakes declared in releasing details of the dramatic episode.
"This operation was conducted without firing a shot," he noted, adding that President Reagan--who had approved the bold maneuver step by step throughout the day Thursday--was "extremely pleased with the successful mission."
"We have been assured by the government of Italy that the terrorists will be subject to full due process of law," Speakes said. "For our part, we intend to pursue prompt extradition to the United States of those involved in the crime.
Details of the interception were spelled out by the White House hours after the office of Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi announced in Rome that a chartered Egyptair 737 carrying the four hijackers had landed at Sigonella airfield near Catania, on the Italian island of Sicily, at 12:30 a.m. (Italian time) today, accompanied by four U.S. military escort jets.
While there were indications in Rome that the Italian government may decide to prosecute the hijackers itself, Justice Department officials said this country would rely on a recently passed federal law against taking U.S. citizens hostage in seeking extradition of the four Palestinian terrorists.
The terrorists, thought to be from a radical splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization called the Palestine Liberation Front, seized the liner Achille Lauro off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, last Monday, murdered retired New York businessman Leon Klinghoffer, 69, and dumped his body into the sea before negotiating a surrender to Egyptian authorities outside Port Said on Wednesday.
Reagan Approved Plans
Speakes said the Administration, surmising that the terrorists might attempt to leave Egypt by air, began laying contingency plans for a possible interception and gained approval to act from Reagan during a presidential speaking trip to Chicago on Thursday.
Using this country's extensive electronic and other intelligence capabilities in the Mediterranean, the White House learned that the hijackers left Al Maza airport outside Cairo at 1:15 p.m. PDT aboard the Egyptian chartered jet. The U.S. 6th Fleet then scrambled four F-14s from the aircraft carrier Saratoga, along with an aerial tanker and other support planes, to intercept it in international airspace above the eastern Mediterranean.
Aboard the Egyptian plane when it was forced to land in Sicily were the four terrorists, two other Palestinians, four Egyptian security personnel and the flight crew. Italian authorities are investigating the two unidentified Palestinians; the Egyptians were allowed to fly home.
Earlier, Egyptian authorities had identified the hijackers as Alaa Abdullah Kheshen, 19; Majid Youssef Malaki, 23; Mahmoud Ali Abdullah, 23, and Abdel Latif Ibrahim Fatayer, 20. All were described as students.
Algiers Flight Plan
A White House source said the airliner had filed a flight plan for Algiers, but changed the route to arrive instead at Tunis, Tunisia, where the PLO maintains its headquarters.
Administration officials said the plane was refused permission to land in both Tunis and Athens and then--in the words of Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who gave details of the military operation in a briefing after midnight this morning--"accepted the inevitable" and agreed to obey the instructions from U.S. interceptors.
Speakes said contingency plans had been made in case the Egyptian jet ignored orders to land in Sicily but he refused to discuss what the F-14 pilots would have been ordered to do.
The use of U.S. warplanes to seize hijackers who had slain an American was the Reagan Administration's first successful application of military force against terrorists after five years of frustration in which officials frequently vowed "swift and effective retribution" but found no circumstance that would allow its use.
A Satisfying Mission
Satisfying as the mission was, its feasibility depended so much on special circumstances--including favorable geography, the presence of strong U.S. intelligence assets and the terrorists' lack of a sympathetic host--that it does not necessarily provide a pattern for future action in such situations.
The White House nonetheless used the occasion to declare that it would not hesitate to again use this country's military might where feasible.