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Clearer Picture of Gunmen Reflects Creed of Violence

December 31, 1985|DOYLE McMANUS | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — From police interrogations in two European capitals, a clearer picture began emerging Monday of the terrorists who murdered 14 travelers at the Rome and Vienna airports last week: They were young Palestinians recruited from refugee camps to a creed of violence, trained and equipped with Libyan help and flown into Europe weeks in advance to await their signal to kill.

The surviving suspects, two in Vienna and one in Rome, confessed to Austrian and Italian police that they are members of a Libyan-based Palestinian faction led by Abu Nidal, who was expelled from the Palestine Liberation Organization a decade ago for resisting curbs on terrorism.

"A lot of the details are still unclear," a State Department official warned. "But one thing that is solid is the tie to Abu Nidal, and there is increasing evidence of a direct link to Libya."

Austrian Interior Minister Karl Blecha told reporters that one of the surviving gunmen said he had worked at the headquarters of Abu Nidal's military organization, called Al Assifa (the Storm). Blecha's aides said the headquarters is in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

At the same time, the government of Tunisia said Monday that the Tunisian passports carried by the terrorists in Vienna actually came from Libya--either lost by Tunisians visiting there or confiscated by Libyan authorities.

In an official statement Sunday, Libya hailed the airport massacres as "heroic."

Officials in Rome and Vienna said they are seeking clues to the identity and whereabouts of several accomplices to the gunmen who apparently aided the attacks but were not captured on the scene.

Accounts from the three surviving gunmen indicated that at least some of them came from the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, formed teams in Switzerland and arrived undetected in Austria and Italy in November and December, according to reports in Rome and Vienna.

In the twin attacks, launched almost simultaneously, four terrorists opened fire on the ticket counter of El Al Airlines at Rome's international airport, and three gunmen attacked El Al's counter at Vienna.

Twelve travelers, including five Americans, and three terrorists died in Rome, while two travelers and one terrorist were killed in Vienna, for a total of 18 deaths. More than 120 people were wounded.

Met by Geneva Contact

Reuters news agency reported from Rome that the surviving gunman there, who identified himself as Mohammed Sarham, 19, told investigators that he and an accomplice flew from Beirut to Geneva, where they were met by a local contact and given money and instructions.

Sarham and his companion, Mohammed Hussein, then traveled by train to Rome and stayed in cheap hotels waiting for two other guerrillas, whom they had never met, to arrive, Reuters said.

They met a local contact in Rome who gave them new Moroccan passports, Sarham reportedly said. Until then, Sarham had been using a Kuwaiti passport and Hussein a Saudi Arabian passport, Reuters reported.

Supplied With Weapons

Sarham said the contact supplied the group with weapons the day before the attack. That evening, the men took taxis to Leonardo da Vinci Airport to plan their action and then returned to their hotels.

Early the following morning, the four men, carrying submachine guns and grenades in cloth bags, took two taxis to the airport and burst into the terminal.

Italian Interior Minister Oscar Luigi Scalfero confirmed part of that account. "There can be no doubt that the terrorists were given help, and that help must have come from Rome," he said.

According to the Italian news agency ANSA, police believe that two groups of four terrorists each left Geneva for Vienna and Rome on Nov. 27.

Doubt in Switzerland

In Bern, Roland Hauenstein, spokesman for the Office of the Federal Prosecutor, said Swiss authorities have no evidence indicating that the attacks were prepared in Switzerland.

On Sunday, Italian newspapers quoted the chief of Italy's military intelligence agency as saying the terrorists had been trained in Iran and stopped in Syria on their way to Rome. But U.S. and Italian officials said Monday that there was no evidence to support that account.

In Vienna, Interior Minister Blecha said police have determined that the terrorists had traveled to Austria on Tunisian passports and stayed in cheap rooming houses for at least several days before the attack. Tunisians are the only Arab nationals who do not need visas to enter Austria.

The airport massacres may have been the bloodiest acts ever staged by Abu Nidal, a PLO renegade whose real name is Sabri Banna.

The most extremist of all Palestinian terrorists, Abu Nidal has publicly branded PLO chief Yasser Arafat a traitor for his willingness to negotiate with Israel and has targeted Palestinian moderates as often as Israeli civilians.

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