A U.S. Army general and two aides who accompanied the Egyptian commando unit that stormed a hijacked Egyptian passenger jet in Malta were sent at the request of the Egyptian government to observe the assault and determine whether further American assistance was needed, Reagan administration officials said yesterday.
The latest administration account downplayed the U.S. role in the Nov. 24 attack and conflicted with statements by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who said last week that he had rejected American offers of help in the hijacking.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said the three U.S. military officers sent at the request of Mubarak's government were "instructed not to participate in any operation, and they did not do so. These personnel were to provide liaison in the event it was necessary to call in U.S. technical advice or assistance."
A Pentagon official said none of the U.S. officers had training in counterterrorism and were sent "for liaison reasons in case something of substantive nature happened. But it never came to that."
The part the U.S. military played in support of the Egyptian commandos has been clouded by conflicting reports since the storming of the jetliner in which at least 57 people died. The Pentagon initially denied any U.S. role, claiming that the three officers joined the Egyptian commando flight on their own.
Egyptian sources have said the U.S. team was sent to Malta to lend "technical assistance" to the commando raid against the Egyptian 737, which had been seized by unidentified Arab hijackers and diverted while flying from Athens to Cairo.
Members of the U.S. Army's elite Delta force were sent to Egypt in the early 1980s to train Egyptian commandos as part of the extensive cooperation between the two nations in dealing with counterterrorism, according to U.S. sources. But it is unclear whether any of the 25 commandos in the Nov. 24 raid had received American training.
Administration officials have identified Maj. Gen. Robert D. Wiegand as head of the U.S. military team sent to Valletta, Malta. Wiegand is chief of the U.S. Office of Military Cooperation in Egypt, which manages the $1.9 billion-a-year military assistance aid program there.
Officials said Wiegand was accompanied by two Army officers, including a colonel, who work in the military cooperation office. Officials refused to name them.
Wiegand commanded the Army's John F. Kennedy Warfare Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina until September. Pentagon officials said the center trains special forces, but counterterrorism is not part of the curriculum.
Maltese officials said Sunday that Wiegand was offered use of the airport control tower to "command" the rescue attempt, but he declined the invitation and chose to stay with his subordinates at a building about 500 yards closer to the hijacked plane, where the Egyptian commandos had set up headquarters.
An administration official said Wiegand was ordered to observe the attack to gauge whether the Egyptians needed U.S. help. The carrier USS Coral Sea was anchored off Malta and its F14 fighters provided air cover for the Egyptian C130 carrying the commandos, sources said.