Trial of cruise ship hijackers in Italy keeps low profile. Trial unlikely to strain Italian relations with Arab world

The trial of the hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro which started earlier this month has kept a low profile. The public seems preoccupied with the progress of the World Cup soccer tournament in Mexico, and neither the government nor public investigators seem willing to make a big political show of the case. According to Italian investigators, 15 Palestinian guerrillas were involved in the seizure of the cruising ship. Among them is Abul Abbas, the leader of the radical Palestine Liberation Front, who is accused of masterminding the whole operation. Only five Palestinians are in custody for the trial: the four hijackers of the ship and another Palestinian, captured last fall in Italy. Ten defendants, including Abul Abbas, are at large and are being tried in absentia.

The Italian investigator said there was no connection between the hijacking and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.

The Achille Lauro, a ship based in Genoa, was seized by a group of Palestinian guerrillas on Oct. 7 of last year. Its passengers and crew were held hostage for two days before the four hijackers gave themselves up to Egyptian authorities. American passenger Leon Klinghoffer was killed by the hijackers and thrown overboard.

No major surprises have so far emerged from the first hearings in the courtroom in Genoa: testifiers repeated their own versions of the events of the hijacking.

In fact, an Italian diplomat says, ``everything is already known in this trial. That's why people are not so interested in it.''

The Achille Lauro hijacking strained Italian-US relations and caused a governmental crisis here last October. ``Now both the government and the Italian political parties seem interested in avoiding another round of polemics,'' says a source in the Ministry of Defense.

``The Italians seem to be very careful in not emphasizing the political aspects of the trial,'' an Arab source in Rome says. ``If it goes on this way, the trial is not likely to endanger the political relationship between Italy and the Arab world. Troubles may only arise if someone calls for PLO responsibility in the story.''

This is unlikely. One government official told the court that, ``During the Achille Lauro crisis, Arafat was very helpful and cooperative. Italian-PLO relations were never strained by the Achille Lauro hijacking, and certainly are not suffering now from the trial in Genoa.''

He also said there are frequent contacts between Italy and the PLO. ``We are not like the Americans,'' he explained. ``We are able to see the difference between Arafat and Abul Abbas.''

Even with a politically low profile, the trial threatens to provoke some radical Palestinians. In a letter to an Italian magazine, Abbas said he was disappointed that Italy and Egypt had not maintained their bargain to release the hijackers in return for their surrender.

On June 13, an organization calling itself the Abul Abbas Organization threatened terrorist attacks on Italy if the defendants on trial in Genoa are not freed. The same day, a bomb exploded in front of the Italian consulate in Athens. No one was hurt in the blast, but it was clearly meant to back up the threat.

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