Evidence points to Libyan connection with Malta hijacking

Was Libya the invisible hand behind last weekend's tragic hijacking of an Egyptian airliner? Egypt is insisting it was. Mideast experts in the United States say the circumstantial evidence points in that direction.

``It's quite plausible there's a Libyan connection,'' says Ray Cline, a terrorism specialist at the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``Qaddafi is bitterly hostile toward the Egyptians. It's clear he would like to embarrass and if possible to destroy Mubarak. Under these circumstancs, a Libyan connection is something you tend to expect.''

Speculation regarding a possible Libyan role comes as officials assess the toll from last Sunday's attack by Egyptian commandoes on a hijacked Egyptian airliner in Malta. The assault left 60 people dead, including all but one of the estimated five hijackers.

Responsibility for the hijacking was originally claimed by a group known as Egypt's Revolution, an obscure terrorist organization which last August claimed responsibility for the killing of an Israeli diplomat in Cairo.

The hijacking now appears to be linked to another shadowy Egyptian-based terrorist group known as the Egypt Liberation Organization. According to news reports, the organization -- a dissident faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization -- is headed by a Palestinian terrorist with alleged Libyan connections named Sabri Banna. Since breaking with the PLO in 1972, the organization has been implicated in numerous terrorist attacks.

Reports say the group has been ardently opposed to Egypt's close association with the US and to relations with Israel developed during the Camp David peace process.

More recently, Sabri Banna, also known as Abu Nidal, was said to be outraged by a recent statement by PLO leader Yasser Arafat renouncing all PLO guerrilla activity outside Israeli-occupied territory.

In a statement issued Monday, the Libyan government denied any involvement in the Egyptair incident, saying permission to land the plane on Libyan territory would have been denied if requested by the hijackers.

Egyptian sources, noting that it was the Libyan ambassador to Malta who made the first attempt to negotiate with the hijackers, insist on a Libyan connection. In a statement Tuesday, Cairo accused the government of Muammar Qaddafi of providing the ``fund-raising and incitement'' behind the hijacking. ``The Libyans have been implicted in so many terrorist threats against Egypt,'' concurs a US State Department official. ``Rest assured, we have many reasons to believe the Libyans are involved in the Eg yptair incident as well.''

``So far, neither the Egyptians nor anyone else has confirmed the Libyan connection,'' says a European-based Middle East specialist. Despite Qaddafi's frequent involvement in terrorism, he says, this would be the first time Qaddafi has been linked to a hijacking.

``But Libya's involvement still seems plausible,'' possibly reflecting Qaddafi's weakened political position at home and growing diplomatic isolation in the Arab world. ``Also, it was a chance to deliver a very hard blow to Mubarak, to all the Arab moderates.'' says this source.

Egyptian relations with Libya turned sour a decade ago when the two nations broke relations over Egyptian participation in the Camp David peace process. In 1977, they fought a brief border war and more recently have competed for influence in Sudan following the coup last April that toppled the government of Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiry. The enmity between the two nations has been compounded by a series of recent Libyan terrorist operations inside Egypt.

Experts here say one reason Cairo has been so eager to point an accusing finger at Tripoli is to provide a base of popular support for a show of Egyptian military force against Libya. Sunday, Mubarak placed Egyptian military forces along the Libyan border on alert.

But domestic political factors may be at work as well. Experts say blaming Libya may be one way for Mubarak to deflect criticism for the handling of the Achille Lauro affair last month. Combined with Mubarak's recent embrace of PLO leader Arafat, the move is also seen here as a way of making inroads on the growing opposition to the Mubarak government from Egypt's Islamic fundamentalists and Nasserite leftists.

``It's consistent with Egyptian policy to blame the Libyans,'' says Middle East expert Raymond Baker of Williams College. ``Within Egypt, such opposition deflects attention from the larger, more important issue -- the groundswell of opposition to Camp David, the Middle East peace process, and Egypt's American connection in general.

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