The U.S. Embassy here said today that a medical examination of the corpse that washed ashore on the Syrian coast on Sunday confirmed that it was the body of Leon Klinghoffer and that it had sustained at least two gunshot wounds.
Shortly after the findings were announced, the body was flown to Italy for a full autopsy Thursday that is intended to determine the exact cause and time of death and provide evidence in the trial of the hijackers of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
Klinghoffer, 69, an invalid confined to a wheelchair, allegedly was killed by the Palestinian hijackers and thrown overboard last week while the ship was off the Syrian coast. Leaders of the Palestine Liberation Front, to which the hijackers belong, had said that Klinghoffer died of a heart attack and that his body disappeared from the ship's infirmary.
Although the U.S. Embassy statement did not say where Klinghoffer was shot, informed western diplomats here said the wounds observed on his body were in the head and the back.
The diplomats said that "at Syria's request," in order to avoid Syrian involvement in legal proceedings surrounding the sensitive case, no autopsy was performed here.
The hijacking was carried out by a faction loyal to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, and observers here noted, however, that Syria is not displeased in seeing the PLO suffer setbacks under Arafat, whom it considers insufficiently militant against Israel.
In New York City, where Klinghoffer lived, his family expressed relief at the identification of the body.
Paul Dworin, fiance of Klinghoffer's daughter Ilsa, said that the reaction of the family "was just relief. It's a punctuation mark -- it's a close." He said Klinghoffer's wife, Marilyn, who was also a hostage on the ship, had received "absolutely unbelievable support from the nation," including 250 letters yesterday from "people who say, 'Your grief is our grief.' "
The investigation into the body's identity was conducted by Syrian government pathologists, a U.S. Embassy-retained Syrian pathologist, a U.S. consular official and an FBI agent.
"The embassy has the sad duty to acknowledge that the body found on the Syrian shore was that of Leon Klinghoffer," U.S. Embassy spokesman John Burgess announced in a briefing shortly before the Alitalia plane carrying the body left from the Damascus airport. Burgess said the identification "was based on fingerprints, dental X-rays and other physical characteristics."
"There was no autopsy performed and there is still no determination of the exact cause of death, but the body did sustain at least two gunshot wounds," Burgess said.
One official said a purpose of the autopsy would be to establish the sequence of events, such as "whether Klinghoffer died before or after he hit the water."
Embassy officials said the body, which had been in the water from Oct. 8 until it washed ashore Sunday, was "in a very bad condition."
"It had been in the water for a very long time and parts of the body had been devoured" at sea, they said.
U.S. Ambassador William Eagleton and other embassy officials were at the airport here as Syrian security agents brought the flag-draped coffin in a military ambulance to the foot of the plane.
It was accompanied on the flight by the FBI agent, who had flown into Damascus Tuesday with identification records.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa first informed the U.S. deputy chief of mission, David Ransom, of the discovery of a body by Syrian authorities Sunday evening. Eagleton, who was in Aleppo, Syria, returned to Damascus to be close to the identification process at the Tishrin military hospital.
Burgess said today that the United States wanted "to express our appreciation to the Syrian authorities for their cooperation in helping identify the body."
Western diplomats said, however, that Syria, while very glad to cooperate in the identification out of humanitarian considerations and readiness to assist a superpower, was being ambivalent about taking a stand on the hijacking itself.
Syria had rejected the hijackers' request to dock the Achille Lauro at its port of Tartus, and its press and radio, all government-controlled, have ignored the entire affair, including the attempt to bring the ship to Tartus and the recovery of Klinghoffer's body.
"Syria was very eager to stay out of the entire legal process" and did not want the Italians to investigate the case here, one diplomat said. "The Italians are completely out of the procedure. It was all agreed between the Americans and the Syrians." The Italian and U.S. ambassadors, however, were in touch throughout the identification process, western diplomats said.
Syrian press reaction to the Israeli raid Oct. 1 on Arafat's PLO headquarters in Tunisia was muted, and Syrian newspapers played up the diplomatic blow to Arafat's representatives in London, where British officials canceled a meeting with them this week.
Al Baath, the newspaper of Syria's ruling party, carried a banner headline today about "Britain's slap to the capitulationists" -- Syria's term for Arafat loyalists.
The Syria Times, an English-language paper, displayed a statement by the Syrian-sponsored anti-Arafat National Palestine Salvation Front saying Britain's refusal to meet with the two Palestinians was a blow to those ''running after U.S.-designed surrender solutions.''