BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Palestinian pirates holding 420 hostages aboard a hijacked luxury liner said today they 'executed' an American hostage and will kill more unless Western diplomats agree to negotiate, radio-monitoring agencies said.
The hijackers, who are demanding the release of 50 Palestinians from Israeli jails, took over the Italian liner Achille Lauro Monday and headed to Beirut, threatening to kill the hostages one by one.
As they crossed the Mediterrean the hijackers radioed Syrian authorities to say they would announce the name of the first victim. The pirates said they would continue killing hostages until a multinational diplomatic team arrived to negotiate with them.
The hijackers insisted on meeting the ambassadors to Syria from the United States, Britain, West Germany and Italy to discuss a demand for the release of 50 Palestinians from Israeli jails. Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti said the hijackers also sought the release of Palestinians held in other countries including Italy.
The hijacking was the first of an ocean liner since the 1961 seizure of a Portuguese cruise ship carrying 967 hostages.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said 'perhaps a dozen, less than 20' Americans were aboard. He said the United States was working with the Italian, Syrian, Egyptian and Israeli governments on the hijacking.
Jesus Ferreiro, the director of Spain's fishing link radio Onda Pesquera, said in San Sebastian, Spain, that a 40-year-old American was believed to have been killed.
'In a ship-to-ship communication we picked up at 13:31 GMT (9:31 a.m. EDT), we heard a crew member of a warship in the area say that the person executed was an American of about 40,' he said.
He said communications picked up between Italian military vessels indicated that the Achille Lauro was traveling at about 12 mph and could be expected to reach the port of Beirut at 4 a.m. EDT Wednesday.
Another spokeswoman at Onda Pesquera said the station had monitored an Italian Maritime Radio report saying the ship was seized by '12 heavily armed guerrillas' who boarded at different ports pretending to be Dutch tourists.
The leader of the group was an employee of a Greek shipping company who had traveled on the Achille Lauro three times previously, befriending the captain and getting pictures and technical data from him, she quoted from the Italian report.
A spokesman for the Shiite Amal militia, which negotiated the release of 39 U.S. hostages hijacked aboard a TWA jetliner in June, said his group had no immediate intention of playing a similar role if the ship landed at Beirut.
'We do not know what humanitarian conditions will dictate to us,' said the Amal official who spoke on condition he not be named. 'But at the moment we have no intentions of playing the role we did in the TWA affair.'
Christian Voice of Lebanon radio, citing radio transmissions monitored by a ham radio operator in northern Lebanon, said earlier the hijackers asked officials in the Syrian coastal town of Tartous to arrange for meetings with Western ambassadors.
They also set a 3 p.m. deadline to 'carry out our threat' to begin killing the hostages. About 20 minutes after the deadline passed, a transmission intercepted by the radio operator indicated someone had been killed.
Part of the message was indecipherable, the ham operator said, but then the gunmen told the Syrians, 'Minutes from now we will follow up with the second one.... Do not worry Tartous, we have a lot of them here.'
In another message intercepted shortly afterwards, the gunmen warned Syria not to send any armed men toward the ship. 'If any armed people are among the group heading our way we will be forced to carry out our previous threat to blow up the ship,' the message said.
In an earlier transmission, the hijackers demanded a Red Cross ship to carry the ambassadors of the United States, West Germany, Italy and Britain to approach and negotiate with them,' Voice of Lebanon said.
'The gunmen also demanded to talk with a delegation from the Palestine Liberation Front,' it said.
The Palestine Liberation Front is a small pro-Syrian guerrilla group opposed to Yasser Arafat's leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Egyptian security sources said the hijackers apparently were members of the pro-Syrian guerrilla group.
In Damascus, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Front denied any involvment in the hijacking.
'Our organization has no relation to this operation.... This operation is against our revolution and our people,' the spokesman said.
'We have many question marks about this operation. We refuse this kind of operation. We only fight inside Palestine,' he said.
A team of Palestinian commandos armed with guns and explosives seized the Italian luxury liner Monday off the coast of Egypt. They threatened to kill the hostages -- beginning with the Americans -- unless Israel frees 50 Palestinian prisoners. They said they would blow up the ship if any planes or warships approach.
'We picked up a conversation between the captain, who was speaking in English, and a warship at 06:47 GMT (2:47 a.m. EDT today),' said Ferreiro of Onda Pesquera.
'He told the ship not to move any closer and that he was under orders not to maintain communications with other vessels,' Ferreiro said.
He said the ship's captain reported all the passengers and crewmembers aboard were in good condition.