ATHENS — Masked gunmen hurling grenades and firing submachine guns killed nine people and wounded at least 60 others in an attack Monday on a Greek ship packed with foreign tourists, the Greek government said.
Merchant Marine Minister Evangelos Yiannopoulos said the cruise ship City of Poros, carrying 400 passengers and 71 crew members, came under attack in the early evening as it was returning from a daily island cruise in the Aegean Sea.
Earlier Monday, an explosion killed two people and destroyed a car parked near a marina where the City of Poros was to dock in Paleo Faliron, a suburb just south of Athens.
Police sources speculated that the car blast and the shipboard attack may be connected, although no one immediately claimed responsibility for either incident.
Yiannopoulos told a news conference that at least nine people had died and 60 others had been injured. An undisclosed number of people jumped from the ship and were missing.
But Athens radio said 78 people--reportedly including American, French and Swedish travelers--had been injured. No passenger list was available. A Merchant Marine Ministry spokesman, requesting anonymity, said no Americans were among the injured.
There were conflicting reports on the attack, which took place about 40 minutes after the ship left the island of Aegina to return to Paleo Faliron.
Yiannopoulos said there were three attackers, already on board the cruise ship, who fired machine guns and grenade launchers before escaping in a small boat that approached the vessel after the assault.
But Antenna No. 10, a private Greek radio station, said the assailants boarded the ship from speedboats and then began firing.
Yiannopoulos said one of the dead was 42-year-old Antonis Deinezis, the ship's first mate.
"I saw one man take a machine gun out of a bag and start shooting at the crowd. Another one hurled grenades, and then it was absolute hysteria," said one passenger.
"People jumped in the sea, and the ship's deck was ablaze," the passenger said. "I heard two explosions. There was blood everywhere."
Capt. George Mavromatakis said the assault ignited fires on his vessel and forced passengers to leap overboard to escape the shooting. At least two people were killed when struck by the ship's propellers, he said.
Government sources said air force planes, helicopters and coast guard vessels had launched a hunt for the attackers, whose identity was unknown.
Several ships rushed to the assistance of the burning vessel, extinguished the fires and started rescuing passengers as coast guard cutters sped to the scene to remove the wounded, officials said. The vessel was helped to Piraeus, the port of Athens.
"We strongly condemn this criminal act. It is unacceptable for a country like ours, which struggles for peace, to become the target of such attacks," Yiannopoulos said.
A senior police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, speculated that the attack was linked to the earlier bomb explosion in Paleo Faliron.
'Waiting for Boat'
"The persons in the car were probably waiting for the boat to return to set the explosives off as the passengers disembarked, but something went wrong and they fell victims to their own weaponry," he said. "The car explosion was so big that it could wreck a house.
"The gunmen on the ship probably heard the news of the blast from the radio and decided to take dynamic action on their own," the police official theorized.
A machine gun, a number of bullets, a grenade and a large amount of U.S. currency were reportedly found nearby.
Police sources said the car was rented by a Lebanese citizen identified as 29-year-old Amout Hamit.
The City of Poros attack was one of the worst incidents involving a passenger ship since October, 1985, when four Palestinians commandeered the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro with more than 500 passengers and crew off Egypt. The hijackers threatened to blow up the ship unless Israel freed Palestinian prisoners.
When the hijackers surrendered two days later, it was learned that American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, 69, had been killed and thrown overboard.
Two weeks ago in Athens, the American military attache to Greece was assassinated. Navy Capt. William E. Nordeen was killed by a booby-trapped car that exploded as he drove past on his way to work. The terrorist organization November 17 claimed responsibility.