A high-ranking Maltese official said today that the U.S. Army general who arrived here with the Egyptian commando unit that stormed a hijacked airliner last week was accompanied by two aides -- not one as previously reported -- and was offered use of the airport control tower by Maltese authorities to "command" the operation.
The American general turned down the offer, however, a senior aide to Prime Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici said in an interview, and chose to stay, with his two accompanying officers, at a building about 500 yards closer to the hijacked airplane, where the Egyptian commandos had set up their operational headquarters.
The Maltese official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, confirmed that his government initially had been angered by the fact the U.S. officers had flown to Malta with the Egyptians uninvited by the Maltese and arrived here unannounced.
But he said that once the American general was here, the government decided to offer him use of the control tower. Maltese officials said today, without elaborating, that they had been led to understand that the Americans were here to "coordinate or command" the operation.
[Sources in Washington confirmed reports that the American general was Brig. Gen. Robert Wiegand, who heads the office of military cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Washington Post staff writer George C. Wilson reported.]
Mifsud Bonnici and his Cabinet, as well as several ambassadors of countries whose citizens were on the plane, were gathered at the airport control tower while the commandos were at the Malta task force building nearer the plane.
The senior Maltese official also confirmed that a second U.S. military team, whose arrival here was delayed by the Maltese government's hesitancy to grant them landing permission, was a group of antiterrorist military experts bringing in sophisticated listening devices to help the commando unit determine exactly where the plane's remaining living hijackers were standing in the craft.
Why the Egyptians chose to assault the plane before this equipment arrived, the official said, "is one of the big questions we keep asking ourselves."
An Israeli woman, Nitzan Meldelson, 23, was declared dead today of a gunshot wound from the hijackers. Earlier, Scarlett Marie Rogenkamp, 38, an American shot by the hijackers, died. In the Egyptian assault, at least 57 people died, most of them from fire and smoke. There were originally 98 persons aboard the plane, including crew, passengers and hijackers.
Exactly what role the U.S. general and his aides played in the assault operation remained unclear today. The Pentagon said Saturday that the U.S. officers had no role and had joined the Egyptian commando flight from Cairo to Malta last Sunday on their own, a claim that many Maltese and western diplomatic sources here said they found hard to accept.
Egyptian sources have said that the U.S. military team was here to provide "technical assistance" to the Egyptian operation against the Egyptair Boeing 737 that had been hijacked by unidentified Arab radicals and diverted here while on a flight from Athens to Cairo.
"You don't just get a U.S. general and two other senior officers hopping on board an Egyptian commando flight traveling halfway across the Mediterranean to stage an operation in a foreign country because they wanted to indulge in tourism," said one western diplomat here who asked not to be identified. "These officers clearly had a mission they were carrying out."
The involvement of U.S. military teams supporting the Egyptian operations in Malta was just part of a large U.S. role in the affair that has emerged from leaks here and in Washington during the past week.
According to several sources, the American carrier USS Coral Sea was diverted to the waters off Malta as soon as the hijacked aircraft landed here and its F14 fighters were used to provide air cover to the Egyptian C130 carrying the commandos as it flew across the eastern Mediterranean.
During the Egyptian assault, radio traffic to and from the plane was monitored, according to Maltese government sources, by a U.S. intelligence-gathering plane from the Coral Sea that flew in a wide circle over the airport here.