The terrorist attack at this city's international airport Friday originally was planned as a hijacking in which Israeli citizens were to be taken hostage, Austria's interior minister said today.
The three terrorists planned to seize passengers checking in for an El Al flight to Tel Aviv and force authorities to allow takeoff of the Israeli airliner, Interior Minister Karl Blecha said. If the authorities resisted, the terrorists "planned to murder the Israelis," he added.
Blecha said the plan was foiled when airport security guards engaged the three terrorists in a gun battle inside the terminal and forced them outside. As police pursued them, one of the attackers was killed and the others wounded and captured.
The minister said details of the plan have emerged during questioning of the two survivors, who he said also have told police that they are Palestinians belonging to the group headed by Abu Nidal that split from the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"During the interrogation," Blecha said, "both of the badly injured criminals said, independent of each other, that they were members of Al Fatah, followed in brackets by RC, or Black June Revolutionary Council . . . . As you know, that is the Abu Nidal group."
Austrian officials repeatedly have differentiated between Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council and the larger Palestinian group called Fatah headed by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
One of the wounded men, Blecha said, had told them he worked for the "Al Assifa" office within the Fatah Revolutionary Council. Interior Ministry officials said that office is in Tripoli, Libya. The name Al Assifa, meaning "the storm," has been used by both Fatah groups.
Authorities here have said both of the captives have been charged with murder and attempted murder and will be tried in Austria.
Blecha, who was speaking in a news conference, described as "disgraceful, scandalous" a report by the Libyan news agency JANA yesterday describing as heroic the Vienna attack and a simultaneous terrorist assault at the Rome airport, where 15 persons were killed.
Blecha's comments were the most comprehensive Austrian account thus far of the Vienna attack, in which two airline passengers were killed and 37 travelers wounded when the terrorists rolled grenades across the floor and shot wildly.
The assault began, according to Blecha, when the terrorists threw two smoke bombs into the El Al check-in area, hoping to cause chaos, during which the hostage-hijack plan would be carried out. He said 15 Austrian security officials were in the area, as well as about 200 other people. Police and passenger accounts said two armed Israeli guards working for El Al also played a significant role.
Blecha said most of his description of the attackers' plans had been offered in separate statements by both prisoners. One of them, however, in an account Blecha stressed had not been confirmed by the other, said their plan was to fly the hijacked El Al jet to Tel Aviv, its original destination, where "some other action" would be carried out.
Evidence of the truth of the hijacking claim, he said, was the fact that the terrorists apparently had made no plans to escape from the airport, and thus were forced to seize a car in an attempt to flee the failed operation. In contrast to previous statements of other officials here, Blecha said "this was no suicide commando."
Blecha said investigators had found that the three terrorists were in Beirut as late as Dec. 20. From there, they flew to Athens. From Athens, he said, "one says he flew to Geneva and came to Vienna by train. The other says he flew to a German city, which he did not name, thence to Budapest, and from Budapest to Vienna by train."
The three entered Austria with passports from Tunisia, the only Arab country whose citizens do not need visas here. The less seriously wounded of the two has told police his name is Abdel Aziz Merzoughi, aged 25. Blecha named the other wounded man as Ben Ahmed Chauval, 25, and the dead man as Mongi Ben Abdollah Saadaoui, 26.
The Associated Press added from Tunis:
The Tunisian passports carried by the three gunmen in Vienna were either confiscated or lost in Libya, Tunisian officials said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Taher Falous said two of the passports were confiscated from Tunisian guest workers last summer before they were expelled during a purge of foreign workers from Libya, and that the third passport was reported lost by a Tunisian eight years ago in Libya.
The names provided by Falous appeared to coincide with those announced by Blecha in Vienna, varying in spelling because of different methods of transliterating the Arabic alphabet.