WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration announced Saturday that it has obtained U.S. arrest warrants for the hijackers of a Pan Am jet in Pakistan, but officials said they are confident that the regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq will prosecute the terrorists in Karachi.
Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten said the three arrest warrants, issued for "John Doe 1," "John Doe 2" and "John Doe 3," were a precaution to ensure that Pakistani authorities do not release the hijackers.
"It is simply a protective measure, because there is no doubt in our minds they will be prosecuted fully by the Pakistanis," Korten said. "The Pakistanis are tough as nails on this kind of thing."
The White House also declared confidence in Pakistan's resolve in a statement issued by spokesman Larry Speakes in Santa Barbara, where President Reagan is vacationing.
"The government of Pakistan is in charge of the investigation into the incident and they have the full confidence and support of the U.S. government," Speakes said.
The warrants call the hijackers "John Doe" because U.S. officials do not know their names. They specify that the hijackers are believed to be under 30 and traveling with passports from the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Bahrain.
At least 15 passengers and airline ground crew died aboard the Pan Am jumbo jet at Karachi International Airport on Friday when four hijackers opened fire inside the cabin. The hijackers had earlier killed an American, Rajesh Kumar of Huntington Beach, Calif. and hospital authorities reported at least 127 injured in the violent conclusion of the jet takeover.
The Administration moved swiftly to issue the warrants in part because of its frustration last year when Italy released Abul Abbas, the accused mastermind of the hijacking of an Italian cruise liner, one official said. The Justice Department had obtained a warrant for Abbas' arrest but Italian officials said it was late and incomplete.
Both Speakes and Korten said Saturday that the warrants, and an accompanying request for the hijackers' arrest, were issued "as a standard practice"--as part of the Administration's efforts to pursue terrorists through criminal law.
Korten said only three warrants were obtained because initial reports said only three hijackers had survived their shootout with Pakistani security teams.
"If it proves to be true that more hijackers survived, we will seek to obtain more warrants," he said.
Pakistani authorities said all four of the hijackers survived a battle with army and police retaking the plane after most of the hostages had been wounded or fled.
Korten said an interagency team including FBI agents and State Department experts had been dispatched to Pakistan to help investigate the incident and to learn more about the hijackers and who sponsored their action.
White House and State Department officials said they had received no substantial new information about the terrorists' identity.
"We are not prepared to link those involved in this incident with any specific group or government," Speakes' statement said.
One of the gunmen declared himself a "Palestinian commando" when he was captured Friday, and the hijackers' main demand was the release of four members of a Palestinian terrorist group imprisoned in Cyprus. However, both Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization have disavowed the action.
Under the warrants and an accompanying extradition request, the terrorists could be tried in U.S. courts if Pakistan decides not to prosecute them.
The warrants, issued late Friday by Federal Magistrate Arthur Burnett and relayed to Pakistan on Saturday, charged the hijackers with attempted aircraft piracy, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, and murder of a U.S. national during a hostage seizure.
Korten said the State Department relayed a request for provisional arrest to Pakistan. Such a request is normally the first step in extradition.
"But we have asked that the Pakistani government hold this request in abeyance," Korten said. "It is to be used only in the event that for some unforseen reason they might be on the verge of release."
Doyle McManus reported from Washington and James Gerstenzang from Santa Barbara.