A Maltese magistrate today began an investigation into the hijacking of the Egyptair jetliner as surviving passengers reportedly identified a man wounded in the Egyptian rescue assault as the leader of the terrorists who seized the plane.
The suspected hijacker, the only survivor among the group of Arabs that took over the Athens-to-Cairo flight on Sunday, has regained consciousness, Maltese authorities said, and identified himself as Omar Marzouki, 20, a Tunisian. But authorities said they did not know if this was his real name and that he had not recovered enough for further questioning.
As hearings opened into the bloody events surrounding the hijacking, which ended here with 59 people dead, the Greek government protested to Malta for authorizing Egyptian commandos to storm the plane, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped up his accusations of Libyan involvement. He openly discussed with reporters the possibility of going to war with Libya.
"We never call for war, but we call for peace, and if we ever have to go to war, it is because we want to bring peace," Mubarak said at a press conference in Cairo in response to a question about whether he was considering a military response to the hijacking. "A decision to launch a war is not an easy decision," he said.
Mubarak also defended the Egyptian rescue attempt against charges by some passengers that wild firing by the commando force had caused many of the deaths. Only six commandos were involved in the actual assault, he said, and they fired a total of seven shots.
Mubarak reiterated his charge that a radical, breakaway Palestinian faction was behind the hijacking and he told reporters that "one of their chiefs is in Tripoli now, at the Grand Hotel, Room 401." Callers could get no answer there, but this was taken as a reference to Abu Nidal, a longtime terrorist living in Libya.
Statements purporting to be from an Abu Nidal group and from an Egyptian revolutionary group were issued in Beirut today, claiming responsibility for the hijacking, but there was no way to determine their authenticity. Libya has denied involvement.
The conflicting claims and accusations are expected to be a key issue in the formal investigation that opened here today under Magistrate Noel Cuschieri, who is to determine whether charges against Marzouki or other legal action are necessary.
Maltese officials and Egyptian Ambassador Ahmed Amri said that so far, there has been no request from Egypt or any other country for extradition of Marzouki.
Maltese government spokesman Paul Mifsud said "several" surviving passengers had positively identified Marzouki as the leader of the hijackers. One of the wounded passengers, Anthony Lyons, an Australian, told reporters from his hospital bed today that he had been among those taken to Marzouki's ward by police to identify him.
Egyptair officials said that they suspect that two other hijackers of the plane are two Arabs who were killed and who were listed on the manifest as Moroccans S. Bou and S. Chakore, although both were presumed to be assumed names.
"We have no proof one way or the other at this stage" about the nationality of the hijackers, said one Egyptair official. "But we have strong suspicions based on certain information with regard to our records of their tickets' origins." He would not elaborate.
The first witness in the magistrate's courtroom today was Capt. Hani Galal, the Egyptian pilot who had already given reporters a gripping account of the 24 hours he, his crew and passengers had spent under the terrorists' gun after their plane was hijacked and forced to make an emergency night landing here as a result of a midair shootout between an Egyptian security guard and the hijackers.
Galal, his head still bandaged because of a gunshot wound, testified for more than two hours behind closed doors. An Egyptair official who attended the session said Galal largely repeated his earlier account for the magistrate. Galal says he hit one hijacker with an ax.
The testimony so far apparently has done little to clarify remaining mysteries about the hijacking such as the number of hijackers and their aims, or to still the criticism about the staggering loss of life that resulted from the Egyptian commando action.
Maltese authorities put the total death toll at 59 today, saying they had counted one victim twice in setting it at 60 yesterday. At least 27 of the other 39 people aboard the plane were injured, either shot by the hijackers or wounded in the rescue assault, when the hijackers detonated grenades as Egyptian commandos blasted their way aboard.
Joel Levy, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy here, raised further questions today, telling The Associated Press that many of the injured survivors had suffered loss of limbs. "Grenades cause shrapnel wounds," he said. "You wouldn't have a leg blown off by a bullet or a grenade."
Mubarak said in Cairo that three of the Egyptian commandos had been wounded, one of them losing both legs.
Disputes continued here and elsewhere today about how the hijackers were able to bring guns and grenades aboard.
Egyptair Chairman Mohammed Fahim Rayan charged here that the weapons had to have been smuggled aboard at Athens International Airport, where weak security procedures, since tightened, were blamed in the hijacking last June of a Trans World Airlines plane.
While saying that he did not "want measures taken against any airport," Rayan said he wanted a review of the security at the Athens airport because "we want to know where there are problems, where it's leaking and what measures can be taken to avoid them."
Reminded that the International Air Transport Association had certified the security measures taken at Athens after the TWA hijacking, Rayan said he wanted IATA to "recertify Athens airport."
Greece, meanwhile, protested to Malta for authorizing the Egyptian commando assault, United Press International reported from Athens. Twelve of the 17 Greek passengers aboard the plane were killed during the commando raid.
"We don't think that all the possibilities for negotiations were exhausted in Valletta," Greek Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias said. "The government of Malta carries the political responsibility for the decision, and for this reason I am sending a letter" of protest to the Maltese foreign minister, Papoulias said at a news conference.
Avriani, an Athens newspaper reportedly close to Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, said that "there is no doubt that behind the stupid attack of the Egyptian commandos was Washington," and charged that Americans were commanding the Egyptians, UPI reported. The United States has said that it was not involved.
Despite Egyptian charges of Libyan and dissident Palestinian involvement in the incident, the exact identity of the hijackers remained an open question. Mubarak said he knew who was behind the hijacking, but said he would "not speak openly on the subject."
"Everything in good time," he said in his Cairo press conference.
Mubarak's top adviser on foreign affairs, Osama Baz, said on U.S. television earlier in the day that evidence linking Libya to the hijacking was "sketchy." But Mubarak described the Libyan connection as "very clear," although adding, "I don't want to say definitely until I reassess the situation."
Palestinian terrorist Sabry Banna, also known as Abu Nidal, who has been linked to the hijacking, lives in Libya and has been interviewed by reporters there within the past year. His followers have a base in Lebanon's Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley, and Egypt implicated him in an attempt to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Cairo last May.
In Beirut today, Abu Nidal's Arab Revolutionary Command issued a joint statement with the little-known Organization of Egypt's Revolutionaries claiming responsibility for the hijacking. Abu Nidal has said his forces are providing arms to the Egyptian rebels.