Agca in Rome: too many pieces for open-and-shut case

In the first hours after Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter's Square last week, the assassination attempt seemed almost an open-and-shut case. The would-be assassin had been caught red-handed. And Mehmet Ali Agca has been held in Rome's central police station ever since. He admits having shot the Pope ("for Islam") and says he acted alone.

But today there are some gnawing doubts that the young Turk is just another religious fanatic who wanted to make his place in the world's headlines.

In fact, the more that is learned of Agca, the more unlikely it seems that he could be a lone killer stalking the Pope in Italy for most of the last six months -- trying to kill him last Wednesday "and become one of Islam's heroes," as his brother has boasted. There seem to be too many questions to be answered.

It was known that he escaped 18 months ago from a Turkish jail where he had begun serving a life sentence, by walking out the front gate dressed as a prison guard. By his own account, he crossed then into Iran and, as he was later to say, entered Syria. There he joined a "camp" and "became converted to the Palestinian cause."

The Italian police think that Agca has tossed the Palestinian question into his fourth-day confession to cloud the issue. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and others have denied any connection with the young man, and had he done his homework, he might have known that only a few days earlier the Pope's secretary of state, Agostino Casaroli, had publicly received in the Vatican Yasser Arafat's right-hand man.

It was the first time that a spokesman for the PLO had been so received. For that matter, the Vatican has never recognized the state of Israel, and its official position for the past 35 years is that Jerusalem must be an international city -- open to all religions. Killing the Pope, any Pope, could never favor the Palestinian cause.

Meanwhile, the hottest theory circulating in Rome today seems worthy of an airport-bought paperback. It goes like this: The two Poles the Soviets most fear are Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski and Karol Wojtyla. The former is believed to be near death in Warsaw, and the latter, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, was felled by bullets last Wednesday.

This theory does not claim that the Turkish assailant was in the pay of Moscow. Nothing as simple as that. It will be recalled that Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi recently made a quick visit to Moscow. It also will be recalled that Qaddafi allegedly trains and gives financial support to European terrorists , and that he sent his men to Rome last year to kill three Libyans, residents here, who were, in his eyes, "counterrevolutionaries."

The Qaddafi, the theory goes, was obliging Moscow (perhaps, even without Moscow asking for the "favor") by having his network assign one of its men to assassinate the Pope.

Pope John Paul II has said that if his native Poland were invaded by the Soviet Union he would personally return to Poland to give support to his countrymen. That may not have been what Moscow wanted to hear -- if Moscow had, or has, any such invasion plans.

That is the theory.

The curious things about Mehmet Ali Agca's background: He comes from a poor, illiterate family, yet he speaks fluent English, though no Italian; that he arrived in Italy last Dec. 13 coming by ferryboat from Tunis to Palermo; that he traveled widely before that date in Bulgaria, Denmark, Yugoslavia, and Britain; that last month he signed up in Milan for a package tour to Palma de Majorca, Spain -- he being the only non-Italian in the group; that he enrolled at Perugia's University for Foreigners, also last month, and stayed in that central Italian town for only three nights, or long enough to get a student's identity card; that he was in Milan in March when the Pope made a visit there; that he had on him a fairly large sum of money in both in Italian lira and Swiss francs at the time of his arrest; that someone speaking good Italian reserved a room for him last week in Rome, at a small hotel not more than a 10-minute walk from the Vatican.

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