BEIRUT — A Palestinian terrorist group Monday leveled espionage charges against six people whom it claimed to have seized at sea off the Gaza Strip.
The guerrillas say the six are Israelis, but officials in Israel and Europe cast increasing doubt on the nationalities of the hostages. There was a suggestion that some of those named by the guerrillas are Roman Catholic rather than Jewish.
Walid Khaled, a leader of the Abu Nidal faction, which said it hijacked a French-registered yacht and its occupants, told reporters in Beirut on Monday that the six captives, seized along with two children, are Israeli agents.
"The operation which we carried out was against people working for Israeli intelligence," Khaled said, adding that the captives were taken to "a safe place."
In the Sunday announcement, the guerrilla group said its hostages were Israelis who also carried French or Belgian passports. On Monday, however, Israeli and Belgian officials indicated that the hostages may not be Israeli citizens.
In Jerusalem, officials said that none of the names given by the Abu Nidal group appeared in any of their computerized lists of Israeli nationals or visitors to Israel.
"A search of computer archives listing holders of Israeli identity cards and those showing tourist entries failed to turn up any of the eight," said Yosef Tov, a Foreign Ministry official.
There was no immediate response from Israeli officials to Khaled's charge that the six adults are Israeli spies.
In Brussels, Belgian Foreign Minister Leo Tindemans said in a radio interview that some of those named by the guerrilla group appear to be Belgian citizens who lived in France, and he said it was "increasingly improbable" that they had dual Israel-Belgian nationality.
The Belgian government said it has received no independent confirmation of the abductions but reported that five of those named by the Abu Nidal group are apparently Roman Catholic rather than Jewish.
An official government statement said that Emmanuel Houtekins, 42; his wife, Godlieve Kets, 48; their children, Laurent Emmanuel Houtekins, 17, and Valerie Emmanuel Houtekins, 16, and Emmanuel's brother, Fernand Houtekins, 40, had lived in Lyon, France, since 1985.
Belgian Records Checked
Belgium said the names and ages of the Houtekins family given by the guerrillas corresponded to those in Belgian official records. The two young children, whom the group did not name, were thought to be those of a woman named Jacqueline Valente, who the group claims has dual Israeli-French nationality.
Valente's mother, interviewed by United Press International, said her daughter is the mother of two children--Marie Laure, 6, and Virginia, 4.
"My daughter is French and Catholic. Her friend Houtekins is Belgian and Catholic. I can't understand this hostage-taking," the mother added. It was not immediately clear which Houtekins the woman's mother was referring to.
On Sunday, Walid Khaled said in Muslim West Beirut that the hostages were seized off the coast of the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip as they were sailing on the 17-ton, 40-foot yacht Silco, under Belgian and Israeli flags.
'Several Days Ago'
One Palestinian source said the hijacking took place "several days ago," and the group withheld information until "they made sure the hostages . . . could not be reached by Israel."
News services reported Monday that the Silco is owned by Fernand Houtekins. French maritime officials in Nice, France, said that the boat had docked in the Mediterranean port of Cannes three years ago, and from time to time since, but that, contrary to the guerrillas' statement, it did not have French registration.
Officials at Cypriot marinas in Larnaca and Limassol, popular east Mediterranean havens for Israeli-bound yachts, found no record that the Silco had called there.
To Undermine Summit
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin described the hostage-taking as an attempt by Palestinian extremists to undermine an Arab League summit that convened Sunday in Jordan.
Asked about evidence that the hostages were not Israelis, Peres said, "From the very beginning it looked a little bit like a fabrication, a public relations story."
In his initial announcement, Khaled said the hijacking was carried out as a "slap" at Jordan's King Hussein, who is hosting the summit, and he warned Arab leaders to make no decisions at the meeting that would give the monarch the right to represent Palestinians in talks with Israel.
Offshoot of PLO
The Abu Nidal group, formally known as the Revolutionary Council of Fatah, was founded in 1974 as a breakaway offshoot of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction. The group is lead by Sabri Banna, now a sworn enemy of Arafat.
The group is believed headquartered in Sidon, Lebanon, after Syrian officials closed down its offices in Damascus earlier this year.
Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva said that despite the group's statement that it would be allowed to see the captives, the group has made no contact.
"We are aware of the reports from news agencies, but at this stage we have not been contacted by the Abu Nidal group," Catherine Peduzzi, a spokeswoman for the Geneva-based Red Cross told reporters Monday. "We have not received any request from them."
Sources in Israel said there was a growing consensus that the hijacking may not have taken place in Israeli waters.
Arie Brosh, head of Tel Aviv's marina, was quoted on Israeli television as saying the possibility was "very low" that a boat could have sailed near Israel without being registered by the border control.