Beirut's state-run radio said today that authorities would attempt to prosecute three Lebanese men for hijacking TWA Flight 847 last month, killing a U.S. Navy diver and holding other passengers hostage for 17 days.
The report, which gave the names of three men, was aired only once, however, and then dropped from all subsequent broadcasts. Maurice Khawwam, prosecutor general in the Mount Lebanon section of Beirut, where the city's airport is located, had announced several days ago that his office would move against the Shiite activists who commandeered TWA's Athens-to-Rome flight on June 14, diverting it to Beirut.
Lebanese judicial sources at first confirmed today's report by Radio Lebanon, then denied that it was true.
No comment was available from the office of Justice Minister Nabih Berri, who was in Damascus, but Berri aides reportedly were angered by the report. The justice minister is also the leader of the dominant Shiite Amal militia.
According to the radio report, the prosecutor general's office in Baabda, located in Christian-controlled territory near the presidential palace, has received the names of Ali Atweh, Ali Younes and Ahmed Gharibeh as a first step toward their prosecution for hijacking the American airliner.
In Washington, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the United States is watching "with close interest" to see what Lebanese authorities do now. "We have no basis for argument concerning the names. We've heard these names before."
Western European countries had pressed Lebanon to act against the hijackers, who remain at large.
Greek police previously had sent Lebanon's prosecutor general the name of Atweh, detained when he was seen loitering about the Athens Airport transit lounge after the hijacking. He was freed later in exchange for 19 passengers and five flight attendants, after the air pirates shot and killed U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem in Beirut.
Although the public prosecutor has relayed Atweh's name to judicial authorities, legal sources here said no further action was expected immediately.
The hijacking of the aircraft carrying 153 passengers and crew was carried out by two Lebanese Shiite activists, members of the extremist Hezbollah or Party of God movement, who demanded the release of Shiite prisoners in Spanish, Kuwaiti and Israeli jails, later settling for those at Israel's Atlit Prison alone.
Despite the frequency of hijackings that involve Beirut's airport, no hijacker has ever been bought to justice because of the virtual absence of state authority here.