Secretary of Defense William Cohen sought Saturday to contain the political fallout in Italy over the deaths caused when an American jet clipped a ski lift’s cable, pledging full cooperation in a joint investigation and a review of all NATO training flights in Italy.
But despite his pledges and apologies, it was clear that divisions remained over the investigation and its consequences. After meeting with Cohen, Italy’s minister of defense, Benjamino Andreatta, made it clear his government wanted to impose restrictions on training flights in Italy, despite the review Cohen announced Saturday.
“Certainly the authorities will make some decision to have a limitation of the flights or exercises,” Andreatta said at a news conference with Cohen here, where both men were attending an annual conference on European security issues.
He did not specify the restrictions, but said that they had to take into account the fact “that Italy is a very crowded country.”
Andreatta welcomed assurances by Cohen and by President Clinton that the U.S. would cooperate with Italy’s investigation. But he said, “The possibility of a new disaster has to be prevented.”
The accident happened Tuesday afternoon when an EA-68 Prowler, a Marine Corps electronic-surveillance jet, sheared a ski lift’s cable in the Dolomite Mountains. The accident sent a cable car with 20 passengers plunging several hundred feet. Everyone aboard died.
Italy is a member of NATO and one of the United States’ close allies in Europe. The crash has provoked a furor there, with politicians and newspapers calling for punishment of the crew and a permanent halt to training flights.
Andreatta has demanded that the jet’s pilot, who has been identified as Capt. Richard J. Ashby, be prosecuted for negligence. He told a special session of Italy’s Parliament that the pilot had flown under the cable and that the jet was six miles off course. He called the events leading up to the accident “incomprehensible.”
At the news conference, Cohen sidestepped a question about the possibility of Italy prosecuting the pilot, saying he would leave it to the lawyers to review the “status of forces” agreement the United States has with Italy and all NATO members.
But a senior American military official said NATO’s charter was clear: Any possible prosecutions for wrongdoing rested with the country of the troops involved.
The furor has grown as American military officials offered contradictory explanations for the plane’s position and altitude and belatedly turned over two data recorders after officials publicly announced that it did not have them.
American defense officials fear the controversy over the crash could sour relations and undercut an important training ground for American forces at Aviano Air Base, which is about 90 miles southeast of the ski lift where the accident occurred.
The jets at Aviano patrol over Bosnia, and a prolonged suspension - or permanent halt - to training flights could undercut that mission.
“Obviously there is a purpose behind low-level flight testing and training,” Cohen said.
Cohen’s aides said afterward that the NATO review could lead to limitations on the time, altitude and course of future training flights, but that it was unlikely to lead to an end to them.
At a news conference in Washington on Friday, President Clinton said he felt “heartsick” over the accident and pledged to conduct a “no holds barred” investigation into its cause.