BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Yugoslavia formally rejected a U.S. request for extradition of PLO official Mohammed Abbas today, saying he had left the country and hoping the decision would not harm friendly relations with Washington.
The United States, which believes Abbas was behind the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of disabled American passenger Leon Klinghoffer, requested the arrest and extradition of Abbas on Saturday.
But the U.S. request 'is legally ungrounded,' a government spokesman told a regular weekly news conference today.
'Mohammed Abbas is member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Yugoslavia recognizes as the only legitimate representative of the Palestine people, and as such he enjoys diplomatic immunity,' Foreign Minister Zeljko Jeglic said.
Milan Veres, an assistant foreign minister, summoned a U.S. Embassy official today and 'responded negatively' to the U.S. request for the extradition of Abbas, Jeglic said.
'We are not of the opinion' that the incident would harm generally good relations between the United States and Yugoslavia, he said.
Jeglic said Abbas had participated in negotiations with Palestinian terrorists aboard the Achille Lauro and said his efforts led to the end of the hijacking. Under the deal, the hijackers were offered safe passage out of Egypt in exchange for their surrender.
U.S. F-14 Tomcat jet fighters from the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga later intercepted an Egyptian airliner carrying the hijackers to Tunisia and forced it to land in Sicily.
Abbas and another Palestinian, who had been aboard the plane, were allowed to board a flight to Belgrade the following day despite a U.S. request that he be held in connection with the hijacking.
Jeglic said Abbas had merely passed through Yugoslavia on his way from Italy. He was in Belgrade from Saturday evening until Monday when he left for an undisclosed destination.
Earlier today, a PLO official said in an interview that Abbas was probably now in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, for a meeting PLO leader Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian officials.
Jeglic said Yugoslavia condemns all sorts of terrorism, from whatever side it comes and for whatever motive.
He said the Yugoslav government has lodged a protest with the United States over its breach of a promise that the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga would not take part in any combat action prior or soon after a visit to Yugoslavia.
The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade asked Aug. 2 and received a Yugoslav approval on Sept. 18 for a routine call to the Yugoslav port of Dubrovnik in the southern Adriatic. The Americans promised, as it is customary, that the Saratoga would not participate in any combat mission or exercise.
Jeglic said, the Saratoga steamed into the waters of Dubrovnik one day after participating in the interception of the Egyptian plane and stayed in port for three days.