Port Said, Egypt — Palestinian hijackers seized an Italian cruise liner at sea Monday with more than 400 people aboard. They demanded that Israel release 50 prisoners and they threatened to blow up the ship if attacked, officials reported.
Italian Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini placed the nation’s armed forces on alert.
Owners of the Achille Lauro listed 78 Americans as passengers aboard the ship.
Patrizia Terese, a duty officer at the Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press 72 Americans and 20 Britons were among 600 passengers who left the ship in Alexandria for a daylong land tour, meaning that possibly six Americans still were aboard.
American passenger who left the ship in Alexandria told the ABC News program “Nightline” that there still were Americans on board.
Harriet Hauser, of Hollywood, Fla., said in Cairo, “I have two friends that stayed on ship because they had been here before.” Another passenger, Matthew Polito of New Jersey, also said he knew of Americans still aboard the ship.
Polito said security was good in Alexandria, but he criticized the security measures in Naples, Italy, the second stop in the cruise. “In Naples, you could go on and off the ship as you felt free. And I saw kids running up and down the ramps and just one hullaballoo there. There was no security, whatsoever in Naples,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mike Austrian said the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was trying to locate the cruise organizers to find out how many Americans left the ship to visit Cairo and the nearby pyramids.
He also said the State Department had established an informal task force in Washington to monitor the situation.
Egyptian officials said the Achille Lauro had left Alexandria and was about 80 miles of Port Said, its next destination, when it was commandeered by an undetermined number of hijackers and headed farther out into the Mediterranean, its destination unknown.
Word of the takeover came in a ship to shore radio report by the hijackers’ leader to Port Said at about 9:30 p.m. (1:20 p.m. PDT). He said the hijackers were members of the Palestine Liberation Front, a dissident faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
It was not known how the hijackers took control of the ship, which had been scheduled to dock in Port Said a half-hour before the radio call came.
Many of the passengers who left the Achille Lauro in Alexandria had been scheduled to rejoin the cruise at Port Said, the northern entrance to the Suez Canal and 150 miles east of Alexandria. The vessel was then to continue on to Ashdod on Israel’s west coast before heading for Naples.
But when the passengers arrived in Port Said, they were placed on buses and taken back to Cairo, 138 miles southwest of the canal city, and checked into hotels.
The threat to blow up the vessel came from the hijackers’ leader, identified only by the name Omar, according to the Port Said officials.
Some Egyptian officials said that they believed the leader was Omar Mustafa and that the group he heads is opposed to PLO chief Yassar Arafat.
Arab specialists said that the Palestine Liberation Front was close to two other splinter groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Italian news agencies quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying the hijackers were armed and had a large supply of explosives.
A Palestinian named Samir Konaiterry headed the list of prisoners the hijackers said were being held in Israel and whose freedom was demanded in exchange for the ship and passengers, the officials reported.
In Tel Aviv, a spokesman said the Foreign Ministry was in close contact with Italian officials and the Israeli Cabinet would meet Tuesday morning.
Other Israeli officials said Konaiterry was one of four Palestinians who landed on the Israeli coast at Nahariya on April 22, 1979, and seized Dani Haran and his 5yearold.
Daughter as hostages. The hostages were killed as Israeli soldiers closed in; two guerrillas were slain in a gunfight and the other two were captured.
There were conflicting estimates on the number of hostages aboard the ship.
An Italian official involved in the crisis command said there were 340 crew members and “about 60 to 80 passengers aboard the ship.”
“The passengers seem to be treated well on the basis of what we’ve learned from Egyptian authorities” who were in radio contact with the ship, the official added.
“We don’t know how it happened,” he said. “The “crew apparently was dis abled, but we don’t know if the hijackers boarded in Alexandria or from the sea.” Egyptian officials said they believed there were 160 passengers aboard the ship when it was commandeered.
Port officials in Naples said the ship originally carried 840 passengers.
An Italian Foreign Ministry official said preliminary reports showed the following breakdown of the passengers who were on the ship before it reached Alexandria: 221 Austrians, 83 Italians, 80 West Germans, 78 Americans, 71 Swiss, 42 French, 20 Britons, 15 Danes, 17 Spaniards, 11 each from Belgium and Bolivia, 10 South Africans, six each from Brazil and Luxembourg, three Canadians, two each from Argentina, Chile and Peru, and one each from Greece and Norway.