Lax security at Athens airport weakens antihijack efforts. Release of hijackers' captured accomplice and their ability to get past security checks draws international criticism

The emotional return of the five Greeks who were among the 145 passengers on-board the hijacked TWA airliner overshadowed the ongoing security problems at Athens International Airport. The five were released Saturday after Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou's Socialist government agreed to exchange a self-confessed accomplice, who had been taken into custody by police at Athens aiport, for the hostages. The hijackers had threatened to kill the Greek passengers one by one if Ali Atwa was not released.

The government described the release of 53 other passengers along with the five Greeks as a triumph, saying it ``provided a bloodless solution to yesterday's hijack.''

But the government's speedy decision to release Atwa, a Shiite Muslim who said he belonged to the shadowy ``Islamic Jihad'' terrorist organization, attracted unfavorable comment from Western diplomats here.

The hijacking from Athens of the Boeing 727 with 145 passengers on board -- and the relative ease with which they smuggled two hand grenades and a pistol on board the plane -- also raised grave questions concerning security at Greece's busiest airport.

Even though security at the airport improved following a spate of incidents in the 1970s -- the bloodiest in August 1973, when Arab terrorists opened fire on passengers boarding a TWA plane, killing five people and wounding 55 -- procedures are still lax, according to international airline crews.

The inefficiency of the Greek police, recently reorganized but not highly trained, is one reason for a failure to curb terrorist incidents. The number of such incidents began rising again three years ago.

But the Socialist government has also been accused of being lax on terrorism. The 1984 release of a Jordanian who had been accused of planning to blow up a jetliner to Israel drew an angry protest from the United States.

Greece is on friendly terms with hard-line Arab states such as Libya and Syria.

The Greek government also tried to play down its responsibility in this latest hijacking by saying that proper security precautions had been taken by airport authorities.

``It must be reminded that there were two hijackings from Frankfurt airport recently . . . despite the well-known strict security measures taken by West German authorities,'' a government announcement released shortly after the hijacking said.

But Greek police officials admit that security at Athens airport is not fool-proof. They say the transit lounge where the hijackers waited to board the plane is a weak link.

Nikos Kokkinakis, director of the Athens security police, said Saturday that passengers entering the transit lounge at the airport did not go through a security check or proper passport control.

Atwa, who was picked up by police in the transit lounge shortly after the hijacking, said he and his collegues had spent the night in the transit lounge. The two hijackers, identified by Atwa as Ahmed Karbaya and Ali Yunes, both Lebanese nationals, arrived from Beirut Thursday afternoon carrying one-way tickets for the Athens-to-Rome TWA flight.

He said the two carried their weapons onto the plane in a nylon bag after wrapping them in fiberglass insulation. Atwa did not manage to board the plane because of a ticket mix-up.

Airport officials said the two men cleared a TWA security checkpoint where passengers pass through a metal detector and their hand luggage is X-rayed.

It was the second security foul-up at the airport following a March attack against a Royal Jordanian airlines (Alia) 727.

Airport officials contend that security had been stepped up after an Arab slipped through a perimeter fence and fired a rocket from a shoulder-held launcher against the plane as it readied for takeoff. The rocket failed to explode but gouged a hole in the roof of the fuselage.

Friday's hijacking was the first to have originated from Athens in the past two years. A Romanian airlines jet chartered to Libya was hijacked in June 1983 after leaving Athens for Rome.

But the most notorious incident involving Athens airport took place in 1976, when an Air France jet with 245 passengers aboard was hijacked by air pirates who boarded in Athens. That hijacking ended after a daring raid by Israeli commandos in Entebbe, Uganda, which secured the release of the passengers.{et

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