Washington tries to sort out Middle East kidnapping

The apparent kidnapping of eight boaters by Abu Nidal's terrorist organization is raising many questions here. It is still unclear who was captured, where, and for what reason. But United States officials who specialize in the Middle East and in terrorism strongly doubt that the boat was intercepted in waters off the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip, as claimed by a spokesman for Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council last Sunday. More likely, they say, was a spot in international waters, perhaps around Cyprus.

The Palestinians claimed the eight boaters, reportedly taken from a French-registered yacht, held dual Israeli citizenship, but US specialists have serious doubts about this claim. Five of the captives appear to be Belgian citizens resident in France. Israel has denied any knowledge of the reported captives.

Abu Nidal's group has offered to let the International Red Cross visit with the captives. According to the Associated Press, the captors have said they will release further information after interrogation of the hostages.

However, until the situation clears, the working assumption, say US officials, is that agents of Abu Nidal took the passengers as part of an effort to reassert influence and legitimize the group's role within the Palestinian movement.

Washington officials are watching for signs of tacit Syrian approval or support for the apparent kidnapping. The Abu Nidal press conference announcing the incident was held in a west Beirut hotel next to the hotel that serves as Syrian intelligence headquarters, they say.

``It seems unlikely the Syrians were unaware of the press conference, and at a minimum they allowed it to happen,'' one specialist says.

Abu Nidal's group, which broke from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the early 1970s, is responsible for some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in recent years, US specialists say. This includes the hijacking of a Pan Am jet in Karachi, Pakistan, in which 21 people died, and the attack on an Istanbul synagogue, which killed 21 - both in September 1986 - as well as the December 1985 attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports, which killed 20 people.

However, since early 1987, the Abu Nidal group has sought to reintegrate itself into the mainstream Palestinian fold, US officials say. The current kidnapping falls into this pattern.

Abu Nidal's search for legitimacy was first noted, US officials say, during preparations for last April's Palestinian National Council in Algeria. The Algerian hosts helped organize talks between Abu Nidal and senior PLO officials, they say.

Abu Nidal reportedly sought inclusion in the PLO leadership, but US officials say that the PLO rejected him because of embarrassment over his terrorist record. However, Abu Nidal reportedly agreed to a probationary period, during which he would refrain from terrorist acts and at the end of which his petition for admission would be considered, US officials say. In the interim, he was allowed to open a small office in Algiers.

Simultaneously, Abu Nidal began building an overt armed following among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon for the first time, officials say. This strategy is apparently based on demonstrating that Abu Nidal is in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle, while other Palestinian leaders are quiescent, US officials say.

The kidnapping of alleged ``Israeli'' boaters on the eve of the Arab summit in Jordan fits this strategy, they say. However, if the victims are innocent pleasure boaters, they add, Abu Nidal will look ``silly'' and could be found to have ``violated his probation.''

Syria's role in this is also of great concern to Washington. Earlier this year, Syria closed down Abu Nidal's overt office in Damascus, as the US had requested. Washington subsequently sent its ambassador back to Syria after an 11 month hiatus. However, Syria has not closed Abu Nidal's training camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which is within its power to do, US specialists say. Some US specialists also suspect Abu Nidal retains a covert presence in Damascus.

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