Italian officials today sought to play down American press reports that Syrian agents helped train and guide to their targets a band of Arab terrorists who attacked the Rome and Vienna airports last December.
Senior Italian officials said they could not confirm the report of direct Syrian involvement in the Dec. 27 attacks in which 19 persons died and more than 100 others were wounded.
Judicial authorities investigating those attacks also said that even if one of the surviving gunmen had made such an allegation of direct Syrian responsibility, there was no independent information to corroborate the claim.
One alleged terrorist survived the Rome attack while two other suspects captured after the Vienna attack are in Austrian custody.
A story in this morning's New York Times -- citing U.S. intelligence information supposedly received from Italian authorities -- said the Rome suspect provided the lead directly linking Syria to the airport attacks.
The judicial sources would neither confirm nor deny the reports tonight, citing a legal ban on discussion of any case under open investigation. One key judicial figure said, however, that investigators had received various versions of events and were still trying to check and sort them out. Any claim of direct Syrian involvement was premature, the jurist said.
Italian judicial officials underscored this by stressing the preliminary stage of their inquiries and pointing out that any assessment of responsibility by any country is premature. Libya, Iran, Syria and South Yemen all have been mentioned since the attacks as possibly having had a hand in them. The officials also called the reports potentially dangerous to the investigations.
Italian sources did confirm the previously reported conclusion by investigators that the band of seven or eight Arab terrorists who staged the coordinated attack had been trained in the Syrian-dominated Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and transported to the Syrian capital of Damascus. They later flew to Yugoslavia and Hungary, and then traveled by train to their targets in Austria and Italy, the sources said.
That information was reported publicly after a meeting in Vienna Jan. 10 of Italian Interior Minister Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and his Austrian counterpart, Karl Blecha. The New York Times account reported, in addition, that the suspect captured in Rome said he was trained by Syrians and accompanied on his journeys by Syrian agents.
On the basis of that information, Italian officials accused Syria of "paternal support" for the terrorists, just as U.S. officials have blamed Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi for the attacks.
Italy's view of Syria's role was made clear, government officials pointed out, as early as Jan. 28 when Prime Minister Bettino Craxi openly blamed Syria and Libya for supporting the latest wave of Arab terrorism in Western Europe in a speech before the Italian Parliament.
The Italian claim of indirect Syrian responsibility for the attacks rests on the knowledge that the Arab commandos, believed to belong to the group led by Palestinian renegade Abu Nidal, were trained in an area where Syria's Army and intelligence sources are dominant.
The terrorists' flight to Europe from Damascus also could not have occurred without Syrian knowledge, if not open support, Italian investigators maintained.
"We have to ask ourselves why is it that only in recent days Washington has decided to blame Syria instead of only Libya for terrorism," said one senior official. "The facts have been there for all to see for months."
Italian officials said they suspect that Israeli intelligence services may have tried to rechannel U.S. concern about terrorism away from relatively weak and militarily insignificant Libya and toward Syria, a much greater threat to Israel.