ROME — Saying he could not endure the anguish of the trial, a Palestinian gunman declined to appear Monday before a court trying him for mass murder in the 1985 post-Christmas terrorist attack on Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport.
Ibrahim Khaled, the sole survivor of the four-man suicide squad whose attack claimed 16 lives and left 80 other people wounded, exercised his right not to appear at the first substantive session of his trial.
The 20-year-old Khaled sent a letter to court with his appointed defender Monday, saying that he was staying away because "my presence will only aggravate suffering" among the families of the victims.
'If I Find the Strength'
"In the future, if I find the strength to appear before the court, I will come," Khaled wrote.
Also accused in absentia are terrorist leader Abu Nidal, who reportedly masterminded the attack, and his follower, Rashid Hameida, who is said to have organized it.
In pretrial interrogation summarized in a 101-page indictment that became public record when the trial officially opened last week, Khaled had offered an insider's view of both the airport attack and the inner workings behind Palestinian terrorism in Europe.
On Monday, the court heard Khaled's account to interrogators of how the attack was planned in Syria and how he entered Italy by train from Yugoslavia on a false passport. More details are expected to come to light when the trial resumes Jan. 15 after a holiday recess.
While he was in training for the attack, "Khaled learned of a plan of attacks in Europe in the camp of Bar el Yas in a part of (Lebanon's) Bekaa Valley under Syrian control," according to the indictment.
"The plans were explained to a group of about 35 militants in intensive training," the court document says, with instructors from Abu Nidal's group telling the young trainees that they had been selected for "suicide missions" to advance the cause of the Palestinian people.
The 1985 attacks were being planned against targets in Italy, Spain, Britain and France because national policy in those countries did not "foresee the liberation of the whole of Palestine nor the destruction of Zionism," Khaled told Italian interrogators.
According to the indictment, Khaled's team of terrorists was ordered to attack the greatest concentration of Jews and Americans at the airport.
Confessing his guilt to investigators, Khaled said the Rome attack, and a simultaneous one at Vienna airport in which four people died, had been planned in Syria in hopes of short-circuiting a Middle East peace initiative and denigrating "the traitor" Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Abu Nidal is the pseudonym of Sabri Banna, who broke with the PLO in 1973 and is believed to head the Revolutionary Council of Fatah. Some of the most savage terrorist attacks in Europe, including one in 1982 against worshipers at Rome's principal synagogue, have been attributed to his group.
According to the indictment, Khaled, who had participated in terrorist operations in West Germany and France, also outlined the Abu Nidal organization's European network of agents and provided a detailed account of the group's headquarters in Damascus.
Khaled and three other young gunmen burst into the airport on Dec. 27, 1985, hurling grenades and firing Kalashnikov assault rifles at people around the check-in areas of El Al and TWA while both airlines were receiving passengers. The three other attackers died in a furious counterattack by El Al security guards and Italian police.
The indictment says the terrorists fired first, but in his letter to the court Monday, Khaled blamed the Israelis for the casualties.
"It was not me that began shooting. The Israelis began it, and I was forced to defend myself," said Khaled. He was wounded in the attack, and, according to the indictment, was saved by Italian police from lynching by enraged survivors.
As he did at the formal trial opening last week, Khaled said he was sorry for the Italian victims in an attack that he termed a gesture "full of horror." Asserting that he has acquired a "certain maturity" in prison, he has told the court that he laments the death of innocent people but continues to believe in the armed struggle.
Under Italian law, conviction would bring life imprisonment because there is no death penalty.
"The sentence does not matter to me," Khaled's letter said. "I am tired. I expect nothing from life. I have nobody. I desire only that death comes as soon as possible."