Syria tries to discredit PLO: a tale of intrigue and murder

The element of this grim example of Middle East politics: * A plot to murder Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during his forthcoming Aug. 10-15 visit to Austria.

* The May 1 murder of Heinz Nittel, a local Austrian official.

* The June 1 assassination of Naim Khader, PLO representative to Brussels.

* The reappearance of the notorious Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal -- who has exchanged to protective mantle of Iraq's secret service for that of the Syrians.

* The failed attempt on the life of Austrian free-lance journalist Renate Possarnig.

* The expulsion of Vienna PLO representative Ghazi Hussein for attempting to help smuggle a large cache of arms into Austria and for introducing Abu Nidal terrorists under the cloak of the PLO into the neutral and normally peaceful country.

As so often is the case in the Middle East, this latest sequence of violence is the result of what is as yet a myth, but perceived as fact. Convinced that the United States is on the verge of extending full diplomatic recognition to the PLO, Syria and its radical Palestinian protege felt it necessary to act.

Isolated in the Arab world and helpless in its opposition to Egyptian peace policies, Syria sees its dream of a resurrection of its historic empire -- including Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan -- about to be buried with the envisioned pending establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and in the Gaza strip.

Radical action that would turn the tables in the Middle East, eliminate even the thought of a peaceful settlement with Israel for the foreseeable future, and discredit PLO guerrilla chief Yasser Arafat was viewed as the only possible solution. The PLO is attempting to turn the situation to its advantage and against Syria.

Austria was chosen as a scene of the showdown because Chancellor Bruno Kreisky plays a permanent role in promoting a moderate image of the PLO and in contacts between Israelis and Palestinians. IT was here that in June 1979 the PLO's increasingly successful campaign for Western recognition reached a peak with Arafat' state visit to Vienna.

Now, following the US-mediated Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire in Lebanon, the PLO may be again on the verge of a thrust forward in its attempts to become a full-fledged partner to the resolution of the Middle East crisis.

But as in 1976, Palestinian renegade Sabi Khalilal Bana (code name: Abu Nidal) -- who was sentenced to death by the PLO in 1974 following a failed attempt on Arafat's life -- is again a willing Syrian instrument in trying to defeat the PLO. Five years ago, Bana's terror commandos attacked the Damascus Seramif Hotel, killing four and wounding 34 others.

Syrian promises to capture the terrorists alive and release them immediately were not kept. They were executed on hastily constructed public gallows in Zahed Al Maji Square on Damascus. Syrian public opinion was now prepared for the attack by Syrian troops on Palestinian positions in Lebanon.

Two years later Abu Nidal's assassins paid fatal visits to the PLO representatives in London, Paris, and Kuwait. In June Brussels PLO representative naim Khader was gunned down in the streets of the Belgian capital.

On May 1 of this year Heinz Nittel, a Vienna regional government official known for his close relations with Israel, was shot dead. A pamphlet claiming responsibility for the murder was deposited a day later in the mailbox of the Austrian Embassy in Damascus.

In an interview with Austrian free-lance journalist Renate Possarnig, Abu Nidal's Damascus office manager, Abdel Rahman Al Issa, threatened to assassinate Chancellor Kreisky if he did not turn over confidential papers regarding Palestinian affairs. Asked where the documents should be deposited, Issa stated that the Syrian government could give Austria Abu Nidal's address.

On her way back from Damascus to Beirut, an unidentified car tried to push her off a cliff.

Palestinian sources claim she was saved by a huge rock that kept her vehicle from falling into the valley.

Diplomatic demarches by Austria's embassy in Damascus and letters from chancellor Kreisky to Syrian President Hafez Assad rendered no result. Rumors of Abu Nidal terror commandos slipping into Vienna began circulating in Beirut and Austria.

Back in Lebanon Ms. Possarnig was supplied with policy and contacts in Vienna by Mustafa Hussein, editor of the Libyan-funded As-Safa newspaper; As-Safa correspondent Ibrahim Mansour Ghuneim, who, according to Kreisky, has not filed one story; and his girlfriend Nadja Fanus.

Following her publications in the Austrian weekly Profil, Ghuneim brought Ms. Possarnig a message from Abu Nidal, threatening her if she did not drop the story.

But she went further, linking Ghuneim to Vienna PLO representative Ghazi hussein -- the only PLO ambassador in Europe recruited not from Arafat's Al-Fatah guerrillas but under pressure from President Assad and but under pressure from President Assad and from the Syrian-sponsored Al Saika movement. She revealed Hussein was the go-between who arranged for an alleged PLO specialist on Abu Nidal, Abul Khaled Issa, to advise the Austria in preparation for Egyptian President Sadat's visit to Austria.

Last week Abul Khaled Issa was arrested at Vienna airport for attempting to smuggle into Austria a cache of arms including four Kalashnikov machine guns, one Czech machine pistol, 525 rounds of ammunition, and six hand grenades. Ghazi Hussein was at the airport to help get the arms through customs by waving his diplomatic passport.

Austria, convinced of the existence of a plot to kill Sadat, reacted swiftly. On Aug. 2 Interior Minister Erwin Lanc declared Ghazi Hussein "persona non grata." On Aug. 3 Issa and his accomplice were held for extradition.

Despite declarations by ranking Austrian officials that Abu Nidal and not the PLO is to be blamed for this incident, Minister Lanc put the burden of proof on the shoulders of PLO chief Arafat. Hussein is no longer welcome in Austria but has not been officially expelled. Says one Austrian official, "The PLO must prove its stand by withdrawing Ghazi Hussein" -- a decision yet to be taken in Beirut.

In interviews with the Austrian press, Hussein says he is a victim of Palestinian internecine struggle. But close advisers to Arafat accuse Hussein of leaking reports to Austrian papers claiming that the PLO, not Abu Nidal, is responsible for recent events.

PLO moderates believe assassination of Sadat would fundamentally change are politics and create a serious challenge to Arafat's leadership in the PLO. Says one aide: "Syria would love to see Israel wipe out the PLO. If only the political shell of the PLO remains, they will be able to fill it with their own men."

At a closed session of the Palestine National Council earlier this year in Damascus. Yasser Arafat is quoted as answering the Syrians: "When President Assad said to me that Palestine is south Syria I reminded him that Syria is north Palestine."

Diplomats in Vienna believe that Ghazi Hussein will shortly bewithdrawn from the Austrian capital. The next phase in this tale will be in Beirut and Damascus, where the PLO will resist Syrian efforts to have one of their operators succeed Hussein.

Advocates within the PLO of a peaceful solution of the Mideast crisis hope the confrontation with Syria will lead to a showdown with the radicals within their own ranks.

One Arafat aide says President Reagan "is indebted to Saudi Arabia for its mediation in Lebanon and the Saudi-engineered oil glut. The price that will be extracted is recognition of the PLO. This is why the time has come to clean up our own house."

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