ROME — Italian caretaker Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, whose government collapsed in the wake of American actions in the Achille Lauro affair, accepted a "particularly friendly" letter from President Reagan on Saturday and said he will go to New York for this week's meeting of Western leaders at the United Nations if he is still in office.
Reagan's letter, hand-delivered by Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, said that the President is "anxious to see you next week in New York for the session of consultations which we will have with our major allies." The letter added, "I never had any doubt that your government would proceed rapidly with the prosecution of the hijackers of the Achille Lauro."
The fate of the Socialist prime minister, who was forced to resign after what most Italian press reports characterized as "arrogant" American disregard for Italian sovereignty in a series of events after the ship hijacking, rests on efforts by Italian President Francesco Cossiga to construct a new governing consensus around the five-party coalition that Craxi led for 26 months.
Whitehead, met for an hour and 45 minutes with Craxi on Saturday morning before flying on to Cairo to attempt a similar reconciliation with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose rule also was weakened by the American interception of the EgyptAir 737 carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers and two Palestine Liberation Organization officials.
Meanwhile, in another previously undisclosed detail of the hijack crisis, Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti told American reporters that Egyptian authorities had called shortly before U.S. fighter planes forced the EgyptAir jet to land in Sicily to say that the plane had been denied permission to land in Tunisia and was heading for one of Rome's two airports, Ciampino or Leonardo da Vinci.
He said that, in the brief interval before Reagan's last-minute telephone call informing Italy of the U.S. interception and the need to land in Sicily, he and Craxi had been delighted at the chance to receive what they thought was the Rome-bound Egyptian jet and to arrest the hijackers "without bureaucratic complications."
It was not clear from Andreotti's remarks whether he thought the Egyptian aircraft was bound for Rome before U.S. planes intercepted it, in which case the Sicily landing forced by the U.S. Navy F-14s would have been unnecessary, or whether it already had been intercepted when he and Craxi learned from Egypt that it wanted the plane to land in Rome.
Hastily Arranged Visit
Concerning Saturday's hastily arranged Whitehead visit, Andreotti said that Italy was informed of it only late Friday night but that Craxi agreed to receive the American emissary's letter from Reagan because "these are days to be forgotten at great pain."
Both Whitehead and Craxi said their discussion was "warm and friendly" as was Reagan's letter, which noted their "differences" over the handling of the Achille Lauro affair.
"Despite these differences, which we have dealt with in a frank and friendly way, we share the fundamental commitment on the necessity to respond with firmness to the challenges posed by international terrorism," the translated Italian text of Reagan's letter said.
After the Whitehead meeting, Craxi said, "I will be delighted to be able to be present at the summit (of Western leaders) in New York unless formal impediments related to the (political) crisis in Italy do not allow me."
He was referring to his tenuous status as caretaker leader, pending the formation of a new government. Craxi resigned Thursday after a dispute with Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini that centered around the Reagan Administration's efforts to get Italy to arrest, pending extradition, PLO official Abul Abbas.
Both the United States and Israel say Abbas masterminded the operation that led to the hijacking of the Achille Lauro. Abbas, leader of a PLO faction, the Palestine Liberation Front, was aboard the Egyptian plane. He later escaped to Yugoslavia from Italy in a maneuver facilitated by Craxi and Andreotti.
Unless Cossiga concludes marathon consultations with Italian party leaders today by naming Craxi as prime minister-designate to form a new government, his status as interim leader may be considered too shaky to warrant his traveling to New York for ceremonies marking the United Nations' 40th anniversary. Reagan, who will be there, has asked leaders of allied nations to meet with him Oct. 24 for a strategy review before the President's November summit in Geneva with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Whitehead, accompanied by Maxwell Rabb, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, said that he "expressed the President's hope that we should now put our differences behind us."
Quickly Penned Statement