At least two senior U.S. military officers traveled with -- and gave support to -- an Egyptian commando unit that stormed a hijacked Egyptair passenger jet in an attack last Sunday that left at least 57 persons dead and about 30 wounded, according to an authoritative source close to the military operation.
The U.S. officers, who reportedly belong to the U.S. military mission in Cairo and who included a general, arrived with the Egyptian commandos and were present at the commandos' operational headquarters at Malta's Luqa International Airport during the assault on the Egyptian Boeing 737, according to this official and to reports from diplomatic sources.
The United States had sought to keep the presence of the officers in Malta secret, for reasons that are not clear. State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman, informed on Friday of the details The Washington Post had been told, declined to comment.
The authoritative source here said that the officers had provided "technical assistance" to the Egyptian operation but would provide no details. Maltese officials have told diplomats here that the Americans actually "coordinated" the assault, but this has not been substantiated.
In Washington, sources confirmed Saturday that a general and colonel traveled with the commandos but contended that they provided no technical assistance nor involved themselves in the rescue operation, staff writer George C. Wilson reported. There were suggestions at the Pentagon that military leaders were unhappy that the Army officers went along on the commando raid at all because they had no specialized knowledge of such operations.
The arrival of the U.S. officers in full battle dress, an unanticipated development for Maltese officials, triggered an angry dispute between American and Maltese officials at the airport and may have contributed to the failure of Malta to allow another American military team to come in time to aid the Egyptians.
The revelation that U.S. military officers were present with the Egyptian commandos as they planned and executed their rescue attempt, indicated a much wider U.S. role behind the Egyptian assault on the hijacked Egyptair plane than has yet been admitted officially by the U.S. government.
From evidence emerging here and in Washington, it appears that the U.S. role involved direct assistance -- both in terms of equipment and personnel -- to the Egyptian commandos. A Sixth Fleet aircraft carrier, the USS Coral Sea, was deployed to provide air cover for the Egyptians if needed or, as Prime Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici indicated, to intercept the hijacked plane if it was allowed to leave Malta. Other U.S. technical personnel were provided to help the Maltese in the investigation of the hijacking and its aftermath.
Maltese sources indicated that the U.S. support of the Egyptian commandos had presented the government here with a delicate political problem with its major regional ally, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Reliable sources reported tonight that Libya was sending a high-level delegation here for consultation with the Bonnici government.
Neither the U.S. Embassy here nor the Maltese government would confirm or deny the presence of U.S. military officers with the Egyptians at Luqa Airport. But the authoritative source who confirmed their presence said they talked to the American military men at the airport building where the Egyptian commandos set up their headquarters after flying here from Cairo in a C130 Hercules air transport.
Other sources confirmed reports that a second U.S. military team had sought to fly to Malta from Europe to provide additional assistance and advice to the Egyptian commandos but failed to get here in time because of the hesitation of a nervous Maltese government.
Sources in Washington said the United States dispatched its special counterterrorist unit known as the Delta Force from Fort Bragg, N.C., to assist the Egyptian commandos, staff writer Wilson reported.
However, the Delta Force got no farther than Sigonella, Italy, officials said. The cited delays in obtaining permission from the Maltese government to land the force. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak requested the Delta Force, according to U.S. government sources, although he has denied this.
The Maltese government reacted angrily, according to sources here, when the U.S. officers disembarked with the Egyptians, about 15 hours after the airliner had been hijacked and about nine hours before the plane was stormed.
Foreign Minister Alex Sceberras Trigona, who was on the tarmac when the Egyptians arrived, complained bitterly to the Americans when they disembarked, apparently unannounced, a source at the airport here recalled. U.S. Ambassador Gary Matthews, who was in the control tower with other foreign ambassadors, was prevented from talking to the American officers by the Maltese, sources said.
Maltese officials refused the Americans' initial request to fly them in by a U.S. helicopter from Sicily, 93 miles north of Malta. A second request to bring in the U.S. military team in an Italian helicopter, from the joint U.S.-Italian Naval Air Station at Sigonella, in Sicily, also was refused, according to sources here close to the investigation of the hijacking.
Sigonella is the base to which U.S. Navy pilots diverted the same Egyptair Boeing 737 in early October after they intercepted it in midair en route to Tunisia with the hijjackers of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro.
After much pressure from Matthews, the sources said, the Maltese government agreed to allow the second U.S. team to fly here from an undisclosed country in Europe in a private plane. They were apparently in the air on their way to Malta when the Egyptians stormed the plane without waiting for their arrival.
Egyptian authorities have said that they had to act when they did because the hijackers were preparing to execute the plane's remaining passengers and crew. The Egyptians have given no evidence that this was the case and other officials here have pointed out that the hijackers had not killed anyone during the 10 hours immediately before the Egyptian assault.
Maltese authorities, led by magistrate Noel Cuschieri and aided by a team of at least five U.S. forensic specialists, are investigating the raid. The U.S. team includes one FBI agent, Danny Defenbaugh, who has declined to comment on the investigation.
[In Washington, U.S. government officials said Saturday that FBI agents were sent to Malta to provide forensic assistance to Maltese authorities and to gather information for possible criminal charges in the United States, staff writer Joe Pichirallo reported.]
Meanwhile, Egyptian sources said that Mubarak's government is pressing the Maltese government -- with apparent U.S. support -- to turn the lone surviving hijacker over to them even before the formal Egyptian extradition request goes through the Maltese judicial process.
The Egyptians are asking that the hijacker, who traveled on a Tunisian passport under the name of Omar Marzouki, be turned over to them "as quickly as possible" to prevent terrorists from attempting to rescue him from the hospital where he is recuperating from wounds suffered when the Egyptians stormed the plane.