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Italians Demand Prosecution Of U.S. Pilot 20 Killed When Wing Clipped Cable Car Wire

Calling American military pilots “Rambos,” some members of Italy’s media and government Wednesday demanded criminal prosecution of a Marine whose surveillance jet sliced a cable car wire on Monday, sending 20 people plunging to their deaths at a ski resort.

Outrage over the accident erupted throughout the Italian government, especially from the Refounded Communist Party, which has been seeking to close American military bases in Italy since the 1950s. Italian politicians Wednesday visited the Alpe Cermis ski resort, where the snow still was streaked with the blood of skiers and a cable operator who fell nearly 300 feet.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi blamed the accident on “tragic recklessness. … This is not about a low-level flight, but a terrible act, a nearly earth-shaving flight, beyond any limit allowed by rules and laws,” Prodi said.

Defense Minister Beniamino Andretta told the ANSA news agency: “We are not asking for revenge, but that the law on criminal responsibility be applied to the commander of the airplane.” Other politicians contended that U.S. and other military pilots, including Italians, carelessly have streaked too close to bridges and power lines near the Alps.

The pilot involved in Monday’s accident - whose name has not been released - remained on the U.S. base at Aviano in northern Italy. One diplomat said long-standing NATO agreements would prevent Italy from having criminal jurisdiction and charges against the pilot could come only from the U.S. government. The diplomat added that the pilot and the United States possibly could be held liable in civil cases if flight regulations were violated.

American military investigators were expected to arrive at Aviano this morning to question the pilot and examine the EA-6B Prowler jet. The plane’s right wing was slightly damaged when it clipped the cable car wire at a mountain altitude of 3,000 feet above sea level. The plane was flying about 300 feet above the ski slopes.

Italy’s Defense Ministry said flights must be a minimum of 500 feet above the ground or any structures, including power lines and cables. Investigators at Aviano are trying to determine what the altitude limit was for the Prowler’s flight pattern, said Lt. John Hayes, a base spokesman.

“The altitude parameters shift from mission to mission and area to area,” Hayes said. “There are a lot of factors that go into determining the altitude: the terrain, the experience of the pilot. We don’t have what the minimum altitude was for this mission. We are still trying to determine that.

“In this case, the Italian government would be responsible for setting the routes. But we have not yet gotten final confirmation from the Italians. That is the big question in the investigation.”

According to American military officials, the pilot and his three-man crew did not feel the jet strike anything during its routine training mission. The pilot has been stationed at Aviano for five months and had accumulated 500 flight hours in the Prowler. “He was more than qualified,” Hayes said.

Anger over the accident - which Italian legislators blame on an alleged series of low-flying, reckless missions by U.S. and other military pilots - has swept across the political spectrum.

“Do these Rambos, these pilots, take our mountains for a ‘zone of operations?”’ wrote Mario Rigoni Stern in the La Stampa newspaper in Turin.