Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has accused Syrian and Libyan intelligence agencies of being behind the new wave of terrorism that has swept the Mediterranean area in recent months.
Arafat, in an interview here at week's end, said the intelligence services of Syria and Libya were sponsoring terrorism to discredit the PLO and to prevent a negotiated settlement with Israel.
Arafat's comments came against a backdrop of widespread charges that the PLO is responsible for recent terrorist attacks such as the ones at the Rome and Vienna airports last month. They reflected his lack of effective control over all elements of the Palestinian umbrella organization, which has become drastically splintered. Israeli officials, in condemning the terrorist attacks, have blamed the PLO in general, pointing to its long history of terrorism.
In November, following the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, Arafat issued a declaration in Cairo denouncing terrorism against unarmed civilians except in Israeli-occupied territories, which PLO officials have defined as all of Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza.
Arafat's charges against the Syrians and Libyans, the first time he has singled out those two nations by name in such a context, provoked the obvious consternation of many of his aides. After the interview, when Arafat had flown out of Tunisia for another round of talks with other Middle Eastern leaders, the aides expressed their wish that Arafat's comments about Libya and Syria be deleted. Arafat could not be reached at the time to ascertain whether those were his wishes as well.
"We don't want to be collaborators," said PLO spokesman Ahmed Abdul-Rahman in asking for the deletions. "Why should we help justify Israeli and U.S. attacks on Libya or Syria?"
In a two-hour interview in one of the many PLO safe houses among which he has been shiftingsince last October's Israeli bombing of his headquarters at Bourg Cedria, south of the Tunisian capital, Arafat made several other points:
He believes that only Syrian, not Libyan, intelligence was involved in the hijacking of the Achille Lauro.
The PLO still has not been able to establish whether Mohammed Abbas, a PLO Executive Committee member and head of the PLO-associated faction of the Palestine Liberation Front, had in fact masterminded the Achille Lauro hijacking, as Italian, U.S. and Israeli authorities allege. Abbas has disappeared and refused to attend PLO meetings, Arafat said.
Abu Nidal, the Palestinian renegade who broke with Arafat in 1974 and whose followers are believed to have staged the Egyptair hijacking to Malta in November as well as the Rome and Vienna airport assaults, is a "tool" of the Syrian and Libyan intelligence organizations.
The refusal of the United States to negotiate with PLO moderates about a compromise peace accord on the Palestinian issue is to blame for the continuing desperation and radicalism among young Palestinians, who are thus easily recruited by these Arab intelligence organizations for terrorism.
Despite the recent rapprochement between his political ally, King Hussein of Jordan, and his longtime enemy, President Hafez Assad of Syria, the joint PLO-Jordanian peace negotiating proposals signed last February are still very much alive.
In talking about the Achille Lauro hijacking, Arafat seemed ill at ease and defensive about the allegations that Abbas, whom he brought into the PLO Executive Committee in 1983 to offset Syrian efforts to split the organization, was the man behind the operation that ended in the death of one elderly, invalid American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
"Till now I do not know the story because till now I did not meet Abu Abbas," Arafat said, referring to Abbas by his code name. He emphasized that he did not know where Abbas had gone after the hijacking.
Abbas left Italy for Yugoslavia after the plane carrying the hijackers was forced down in Sicily by U.S. warplanes. He is reported to have been in Baghdad, Iraq, where Arafat also reportedly has visited since the Achille Lauro hijacking in October.
Arafat said that an Executive Committee inquiry had been set up but that it was still waiting for information from the Italian government to complete its work. If Abbas is found to have been behind the Achille Lauro affair, as Italian judicial officials have claimed, he would be disciplined under PLO laws, Arafat insisted.
Arafat added that the PLO had received some information about radio conversations between the four hijackers of the Achille Lauro, who are awaiting trial in a Genoa jail, and Syrian officials when the ship was off the coast of Syria. It was at that time, Arafat said, that the hijackers were gathering the Americans on board to send them ashore, which, he said, indicated that Syrian intelligence was involved.
But he said the plan was aborted at the last minute on the orders of Syrian President Assad after diplomatic intercession by the Italian and American governments.
Syria has denied involvement in the Achille Lauro hijacking and returned Klinghoffer's body after it washed ashore there.
In discussing Abu Nidal, whose real name is Sabri Banna and who heads a rebel anti-PLO organization calling itself Fatah -- Revolutionary Council, Arafat said, "He is a tool for some Arab intelligence services."
"He is only a front for these Arab services, nothing more," Arafat said. "Now he is working for the Syrians and the Libyans."
In Damascus, Syria, a communique from the Abu Nidal group warned that it would continue to attack U.S. and Israeli interests with suicide commando raids, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In discussing the Achille Lauro affair, the hijacking of the Egyptair jet to Malta in which 60 persons died and the Dec. 27 attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports in which 19 persons were killed and more than 100 wounded, Arafat insisted that these operations were not those of Palestinian organizations even if young Palestinians might have been involved.
"These countries are using Palestinian names, but they are not Palestinian organizations," Arafat said. "Because of the Palestinian tragedy, it is easy to find individuals, some elements here, some elements there, to use."
Arafat said that such recruitment -- and the violence that results from it -- will continue as long as there is no change in the political and social conditions of the Palestinians who are advocating the creation of some sort of Palestinian state in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"Those Arab intelligence services are exploiting the despair, the hopelessness, the tragic living conditions in which the Palestinians are obliged to exist," Arafat said. "But once there is an acceptable political solution, the political and human environment that feeds terrorism will have changed. It is the absence of any political solution that promotes that kind of military operation.
"These kinds of operations will continue taking place as long as there is no acceptable political solution to the Palestinian problem," Arafat said, insisting that his organization was incapable of preventing all terrorist attacks by others.
Arafat blamed the United States for the current deadlock in the peace process, claiming that for every Arab and Palestinian move toward compromise in the past 10 years there has "been no response" from the Americans, who have urged such moves.
The PLO leader specifically cited the 1982 Arab summit in Fez, Morocco, which produced a 10-point peace proposal initially advanced by Saudi King Fahd, and the more recent agreement last Feb. 11 between Arafat and King Hussein for a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation for U.S.-sponsored negotiations with Israel about making the occupied West Bank and Gaza a federated Arab state tied to Jordan.
"What was the result?" Arafat asked. "It was as if we had offered nothing, although before that everyone was pushing us, pushing the Palestinians, the Arabs, to accept these peace projects."
Arafat said that despite the deadlock and the lack of any U.S. response to Arab moves toward compromise, he still had "hope" for the peace process.
He said that he was not afraid that the recent rapprochement between Hussein and Assad had sabotaged his own agreement for joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiations with Israel, even though he was sure Assad's interest in Hussein was to create a "split" between Hussein and Arafat.
Arafat said he was still committed to the Feb. 11 accords with Hussein and had been told by the king in their two meetings last month that he was equally committed to their agreement.
In their accord, Arafat stopped just short of openly stating his acceptance of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which the U.S. considers the starting point for any negotiations with Israel as both those resolutions carry the implicit recognition of Israel by the Arabs.
But Arafat said here that his agreement with the king was to accept "all United Nations resolutions, including Security Council resolutions, relevant to the Palestinian questions. All." PLO sources said that this includes 242 and 338, even if it does not single them out by number because of longstanding Palestinian reservations about their language, which fails to recognize the Palestinians as a distinct culture.