SANTA BARBARA — An irate President Reagan called Wednesday's explosion aboard a TWA airliner "a barbarous act of wanton international terrorism," and a senior Administration official vowed Thursday to hold Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi responsible, even if no direct link can be found between him and the bombing.
"He certainly helped create the climate in which this took place," the official told reporters. "We will take some action, just as we took action after Rome and Vienna."
The Administration applied stiff economic sanctions against Libya early this year after Kadafi offered safe haven to Abu Nidal, the renegade Palestinian accused of masterminding the Christmas season airport bombings in Rome and Vienna that claimed 20 lives, including those of five Americans and four terrorists.
Some Administration officials concede that recent U.S. naval exercises in the Gulf of Sidra, which resulted in a clash between the U.S. and Libyan forces, were aimed at provoking Kadafi in the wake of the Rome and Vienna incidents.
Kadafi has denied any involvement in the Wednesday TWA explosion, but White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that "his denials by themselves mean nothing" in the context of his record on such matters.
Even though a group calling itself the Arab Revolutionary Cells has claimed responsibility for the airline explosion, Speakes said the case is far from closed.
"We have not ruled out any terrorist group, organization, movement or individual as a potential perpetrator," he said. "Until all the facts are determined, we will not specifically say who is responsible."
But the official who briefed reporters on the grounds that he not be identified seemed eager to blame Kadafi, even if Kadafi did not directly order the bombing.
Actions and Rhetoric
"What I'm saying is that he, by his actions and his rhetoric, created an environment in which this sort of thing is more likely to occur, and that is something that we are obviously going to take into account at some level," he said.
Asked if the Administration was contemplating a military response, Speakes said that was "an iffy zone" and refused to elaborate. The official who spoke on background similarly refused to specify what steps were under consideration.
The Administration's intention to hold Kadafi accountable appeared somewhat at odds with a parallel assessment by top Administration officials that the bombing was probably the work of a "free-lance" group that Kadafi does not control.
"The profile of the action doesn't match what we've seen him try to do before," one official said. Another explained that the TWA explosion was "not the usual method" favored by Kadafi's forces.
"They shoot up airports, but they don't put single bombs on airplanes," he said.
At the same time, Speakes turned aside the suggestion that the attack on the TWA aircraft was a direct response to the U.S. military action against Libya last week in the Gulf of Sidra. Kadafi claims control over the gulf--part of the Mediterranean--to a distance of up to 150 miles from the Libyan coast, but the United States and all other maritime nations consider anything beyond the 12-mile limit to be international waters.
"I don't think we can make that connection," Speakes said, despite the assertion by the Arab Revolutionary Cells that it had retaliated for the clash in the gulf.
Administration officials were reluctant to put much credence in the claims of the Arab Revolutionary Cells, a group that Speakes said "has not been heard of under that name before."
Reagan, who is vacationing at his mountaintop ranch until Sunday, directed the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration to assist the governments of Italy, Greece and Egypt in investigating the incident and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Speakes said the FBI would help local authorities in Europe in their search for evidence that could be used in a criminal prosecution. He said any foreign nationals accused of responsibility could be prosecuted under a variety of U.S. statutes that prohibit acts of violence against American air travelers.
All four of the dead in the TWA explosion were Americans, including an 9-month-old girl. Reagan sent personal letters of condolence Thursday to family members.
Asked about the safety of air travel by Americans in Europe, Speakes said, "Travel is never without risk" and that Americans should exercise "prudence."
But he said that the Administration has no plans to issue travel advisories warning Americans not to visit certain areas that have been the target of terrorist attacks.
Last summer, following the hijacking of a TWA airliner after it left Athens, the State Department urged Americans not to use that facility. The alert was lifted a month later after FAA security experts deemed that the airport had installed adequate safeguards to protect travelers.