ROME — Italian Premier Bettino Craxi says U.S. military planes tailed an aircraft carrying PLO official Abul Abbas from Sicily to Rome, and he protested to Washington the alleged violation of Italian airspace.
Craxi also gave his version of a reported confrontation between U.S. troops and Italian forces when an Egyptian jet carrying the four hijackers of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro was forced by U.S. warplanes to land in Sicily.
Craxi said that after the Egyptian plane arrived, 50 Italian soldiers faced down 50 American soldiers headed by a general ordered by the White House "to pick up the terrorists."
Remarks Before Resignation
Craxi's comments came in a speech to Parliament on Thursday just before he resigned over criticism of his handling of the Achille Lauro hijacking.
Craxi was criticized at home and abroad for releasing Abbas, who has been accused by the Reagan Administration of masterminding the Oct. 7 hijacking, during which an American passenger died.
U.S. Navy F-14s intercepted an Egyptian airliner carrying the hijackers and Abbas and forced the plane to land at an air base in Sicily on Oct. 11.
In Washington, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Friday, "We don't have any comment on any of the events that took place after the Egyptian aircraft landed at Sigonella."
In a statement last Monday, Craxi said, "There was no tension between American soldiers and Italian soldiers." He said that after a telephone conversations with Reagan, the U.S. soldiers returned to their plane.
CBS News, quoting unidentified U.S. officials, reported last Thursday that the plane was surrounded by two dozen U.S. commandos, who wanted to put the hijackers and their two PLO escorts aboard a waiting plane to fly to the United States.
However, Italian troops arrived in force and a heated argument broke out, the network said. The Americans finally gave in, CBS quoted one source as saying, because, "the alternative was a shoot-out with our allies."
In an interview published Friday in a Zagreb, Yugoslavia, newspaper, Abbas was quoted as saying that U.S. and Italian troops threatened each other with firearms.
On the night of the interception, the White House said nothing about a confrontation with the Italians. It said the capture of the hijackers "reflects our close cooperation with an ally and close friend, Italy, in combating international terrorism."
Abbas was aboard the Egyptian plane when it flew on to Rome on Oct. 11, the day before Italian authorities allowed him to go to Yugoslavia.
The Egyptian plane, while being escorted to Rome by four Italian fighter planes, was shadowed by an unidentified, "non-authorized" American military plane, Craxi said.
The American pilot would not reply to requests for identification from the four Italian fighters and asked the Italians to move away, he said.
Craxi said the American plane was believed to be an F-14, which later disappeared from Italian radar screens about 25 miles from the Rome airport "flying a very low altitude."
In addition, an American T-39 military plane asked to land nearby at the Rome airport "claiming to have an emergency."