The Egyptian government condemned today the U.S. seizure of an Egyptian airplane carrying Palestinian hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, amid signs of growing embarrassment and anger here. A Foreign Ministry statement expressed "deep regret" at the "surprising" U.S. action.
Although officials in both countries have expressed hopes that the incident will not have a lasting effect on their good relations, which are key to U.S. policy in the region and economically vital to Egypt, the strain was apparent.
This evening U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Veliotes met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel-Meguid at the minister's request to discuss the matter. But Veliotes left the meeting hurriedly after only 20 minutes and appeared angry.
Posing for television cameras, both men sat apart, and there was no attempt to present any picture of cordiality. Neither Veliotes nor Abdel-Meguid would talk to reporters afterward.
In addition to the affront perceived by Egyptian officials when U.S. jet fighters forced their aircraft to land at a military base in Sicily, they have had to face allegations that President Hosni Mubarak lied yesterday about the whereabouts of the hijackers, who also had killed an American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, 69, and thrown his body into the sea.
At noon Thursday, well before the airplane with the surrendered terrorists had taken off, by U.S. accounts, Mubarak told reporters: "They have actually left Egypt. I do not know exactly where they have gone. Perhaps they have left for Tunisia."
Speaking on the ABC-TV program "Nightline," Egypt's ambassador to Washington, Sayed Abdel Raouf Reedy, voiced Egypt's anger at suggestions that Mubarak lied. "This makes us very angry," Reedy said. "We have done everything we can to free more than 400 people without acceding to any conditions from the hijackers . . . . Egypt has done more than anybody could have done under the circumstance, and yet we are being blamed, our president is being criticized in such a very unfair manner."
Mubarak, and later yesterday Abdel-Meguid as well, claimed that the hijackers were released into the hands of the Palestine Liberation Organization and left before it was known that they had killed an American during the ship's two-day ordeal. Mubarak said that the hijackers had been freed five hours after surrendering Wednesday.
U.S. officials said the plane carrying the hijackers did not leave Egypt until about 10:15 p.m. last night, long after Mubarak's and Abdel-Meguid's remarks and almost a day after the slaying of Klinghoffer had been made known by the ship's captain.
The crisis has put Mubarak in a difficult and ambiguous position. In recent months he has found it increasingly difficult to balance his country's peace treaty with Israel, its friendship with the United States -- which gives it billions of dollars in aid -- and its desire to renew its ties and leadership in the Arab world.
The Israeli air attack on PLO headquarters in Tunisia last week raised tensions all over the area and weakened Mubarak's efforts to push ahead the Middle East peace process while staying on good terms with both Israel and the PLO.
Today the PLO's executive committee in Tunis condemned the U.S. interception of the plane carrying the hijackers, calling it a "flagrant act of piracy."
Morocco's King Hassan canceled a visit to the United States set for this month, citing the "particular international conjuncture." Diplomats said he was referring to the U.S. action and last week's Israeli raid on PLO headquarters, Reuter reported.
Algeria and Iran also denounced the U.S. action, but there was no immediate reaction from key Arab states in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Syria.
"We've had enough of all kinds of troubles, and we're trying to keep troubles away," said one Egyptian analyst with close ties to top officials here. "We don't want any troubles -- not from America, not from the Palestinians, not from the Syrians -- and now we are in the middle."
"The Israeli raid on Tunisia -- it has been forgotten completely," the analyst said. "We have to get back to the real reasons everything is boiling in this area. We can't stop because one American is dead."
The Foreign Ministry statement late this afternoon attempted, sometimes indirectly, to address the criticism of Mubarak's government for its agreement to free the hijackers and its misleading remarks about whether they had left.
The government here had "learned with deep regret the surprising news" that U.S. warplanes intercepted the Egyptair flight carrying the hijackers "along with two members of the Palestine Liberation Organization who participated in the negotiating process" for the release of the ship, the statement said.
Emphasizing Egypt's humanitarian motives, the statement built what appears to be Cairo's basic defense. It implied on the one hand that Egypt's top officials could have misspoken because they had erroneous information, and on the other that they thought turning over the hijackers to the PLO would satisfy the United States.
"Egypt attempted to hand the kidnapers to the leadership of the PLO to be prosecuted," the Foreign Ministry said, in accordance with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's statement that he would do so. This idea, the statement noted, had been "instantaneously accepted by the president of the United States."
Reagan initially had told reporters yesterday that it would be "all right" for the hijackers to be tried by the PLO, but a top aide told reporters soon afterward that Reagan had "meant that he wants the PLO to turn these hijackers over to competent authority for trial."
According to the Egyptian statement, the plane was intercepted on its way back to Cairo after it was refused landing rights in Tunis. It said rights previously had been granted, but only after a wait that "took several hours," suggesting that the hijackers' departure from Egypt was much later than authorities here had anticipated.
The Egyptians also noted that they provided a "full opportunity" for their security forces to interrogate the hijackers and investigate the case. One senior Egyptian official suggested privately that the statements by Mubarak and Abdel-Meguid were in some way meant to buy time for this process.
There is an attempt as well to place some of the blame for the confusion on Gerardo de Rosa, captain of the hijacked Achille Lauro.
De Rosa said repeatedly on Wednesday afternoon in open radio transmissions that everyone on board was all right, and he denied that anyone had been killed, even though he apparently knew this was not the case. At that time, however, the hijackers were still aboard.
The ship is still being held in Port Said pending investigation of the captain by Egyptian authorities, according to a spokesman for the Italian Embassy.
According to Paul Weltman, a passenger interviewed at the airport tonight, when de Rosa made his statements denying any deaths, "the captain was at gunpoint all the time. He was under intense pressure. They were threatening to blow up the ship."