Four Navy F14s from the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga intercepted the Egyptian 737 airliner carrying the hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship about 5:30 p.m. EDT south of Crete and persuaded the pilot in a radio message to land at the NATO base in Sigonella, Italy, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said early today.

Weinberger said that the Saratoga was told at about 2 p.m. EDT to "get ready" and had about two hours to prepare for the mission to intercept the airliner bearing the four hijackers, two additional Palestinians who were being questioned by Italian authorities, four Egyptians and the air crew.

The Saratoga, which was near Albania when it received the orders to prepare its air wing, was going in the "opposite direction," Weinberger said, and "had to be turned."

The F14s took off from the Saratoga along with an E2C command and control plane and intercepted the airliner in "about 45 minutes" in dark skies.

Weinberger said the U.S. aircraft had "hovered" as they searched out the plane they were after, then ordered it to fly to Italy to land.

Tankers from the aircraft carrier also went aloft, but were not needed for aerial refueling, the secretary said.

The Egyptian plane had left Cairo at 4:15 p.m. EDT.

Weinberger declined to go into the specifics of the tactics. But he said there was no attempt by the Egyptian pilot to take evasive maneuvers. The airliner crew, he said, "accepted our intercept" and went along with the four F14s to the landing at Sigonella, which has an airstrip about 8,000 feet long.

Asked what would have happened to the Egyptian airliner if it had refused to land at Sigonella, Weinberger refused to answer on the grounds that it was "a hypothetical question."

He also declined to specify what troops the United States had sent to Sicily or any other forward base to overwhelm the terrorists while they were still on the cruise ship and free the hostages.

"We were prepared to take action against the ship," he said, which he predicted would have been "effective and successful."

The standard tactic for finding and intercepting the airliner would be for the E2C to use its long-range radar to detect the plane and then guide the fighters to it through radio commands. Weinberger indicated that all four F14s surrounded the jet rather than take turns escorting it two at a time, another standard tactic.

"They accepted the inevitable," Weinberger said of the Egyptian air crew when it agreed by radio to follow the F14s to a landing in Sigonella.

He said the fliers from the Saratoga "cannot be commended too highly" for executing the intercept so successfully on such short notice in an area where they had to sift through other air traffic in the sky at night.

Weinberger said that one of the two Palestinians being held by Italian police for questioning was suspected of being a member of the PLO. The second Palestinian is also suspected of being linked to one of the PLO factions, he said.