-Caveat Lector-

Italy indicts 10 over '80 jetliner crash
Old suspicions of missile attack, cover-up revived



 By Tom Hundley
Tribune Foreign Correspondent
September 4, 1999
ROME -- Itavia Airline's Flight 870 from Bologna to Palermo was already two
hours late when it took off at 6:08 on a balmy June evening in 1980.

Less than an hour into the flight, the jetliner, a DC-9 with 81 passengers
and crew aboard, disappeared from radar screens. Its last message from the
pilot to ground control was a routine, "We're about to start our descent."

The next day, rescue teams found the wreckage scattered over a wide area of
the Tyrrhenian Sea near the island of Ustica, about 50 miles off the northern
coast of Sicily. There were no survivors.

For 19 years, the cause of the crash has remained unresolved, shrouded in
conspiracy theories and cover-ups. Now a new chapter in the mystery of Flight
870 is being written.

The Italian government this week indicted four retired Italian air force
generals and six senior military intelligence officers for treason, charging
them with conspiring to keep silent and destroying evidence of the true cause
of the tragedy.

It appears that the most likely and long-suspected explanation--that the
plane was caught in a crossfire between NATO warplanes, possibly
American-piloted, and Libyan aircraft--will finally have its day in court.

The wide area over which the crash debris and the bodies were spread led
investigators to conclude almost immediately that there had been some kind of
explosion.

A bomb was one possibility, but no group or person came forward to claim
responsibility. Perhaps some mechanical malfunction had caused the explosion.
Investigators pursued that theory for a while but came up empty.

Within a few months, a new theory emerged: The plane had been shot down by a
missile, possibly two missiles. The Italian military and NATO denied any
involvement.

Bolstering that theory was the discovery, three weeks after the incident, of
a Libyan MiG-21 that had crashed into a remote Calabrian mountainside about
200 miles from where the DC-9 went down.

The initial autopsy report indicated the Libyan pilot had died several weeks
before. But that report was overruled by a military investigation, which
concluded that the pilot had died of heart attack the day he was found and
that this was the cause of the crash. The body was quickly shipped back to
Libya.

On the night of the Ustica crash, the alarm for the missing airliner was
first sounded by an Italian air defense radar station in Sicily, but when
investigators sought the radar tracking tape they found that the crucial
segment recording the last eight minutes of the ill-fated flight had been
"unfortunately" erased.

Italy's military secrecy act blocked further investigation.

There were other signs of a cover-up. The Italian government made no serious
effort to recover the wreckage from the sea floor until 1986, six years after
the crash, when about 90 percent of the aircraft was brought up. By that
time, parts of the wreckage recovered immediately after the crash had
disappeared. Meanwhile, Itavia, a privately owned domestic carrier, went
bankrupt.

Pressured by relatives of the victims, one special commission after another
looked into the matter, only to run into a stone wall of official obfuscation.

The most persuasive evidence came from the U.S. National Transportation
Safety Board and Britain's Royal Armament Research and Development
Establishment. Based on a study of the wreckage and radar data obtained from
civil air authorities, both agencies concluded that the DC-9 had been blown
out of the sky by a missile. The agencies ruled out the possibility of a bomb
on the plane.

Those findings were published in 1986 and they triggered a new panel of
experts to look into the Ustica crash. Three years later, the panel concluded
that, indeed, the DC-9 had been hit by a missile. A few months later, two of
the panel's five experts changed their minds and said it was a bomb.

That's when Rome magistrate Rosario Priore took over the case. Ten years
later, with the help of another panel of experts, he has produced a
3,000-page report concluding that the DC-9 was caught "in a warlike scenario"
as NATO and Libyan jets skirmished over the Mediterranean.

For Daria Bonfietti, an Italian parliamentarian who lost a brother in the
crash, the findings represented a measure of vindication after a long
struggle.

"In our country 81 innocent people lost their lives and little by little this
event was forgotten. Today this long chapter can be closed," said Bonfietti,
who heads the Ustica Victims Association.

She said that Italy's NATO allies had withheld critical information and that
getting to the truth was "above all a matter of national dignity."

The most likely scenario, according to the report, is that a plane from one
side or the other tried to use the civilian jet as a shield to hide from
enemy radar. Several warplanes from each side appear to have been involved in
the skirmishing.

According to a reconstruction aired by state-run Italian television, a NATO
plane took cover behind the DC-9, but was fired on by at least one of two
Libyan jets in the vicinity. The missile hit the civilian plane instead.

Others who have studied the evidence believe it was a Libyan jet hiding in
the civilian airliner's shadow and that a NATO plane fired the fatal missile.

Other credible evidence suggests that the missile was not fired from an
aircraft at all, but from a land- or sea-based launcher.

Various official investigations into the case, including the most recent,
suggest that U.S., British and French warplanes were active in the vicinity
at the time of the incident. A British aircraft carrier was said to have been
nearby.

The 1980 incident occurred at a time of high tension between the U.S. and
Libya, which was threatening to launch an attack against neighboring Egypt.

There were unconfirmed reports soon after the incident of U.S. and Israeli
attempts to shoot down a Libyan aircraft carrying leader Moammar Gadhafi, a
possibility the Priore report does not rule out.

The Italian high command's official position has been that there was no
military air activity within 50 miles of the civilian plane.

Appearing on television after the indictments were announced, retired Gen.
Lamberto Bartolucci said that such a massive cover-up could only have been
orchestrated from above.

"The government was the only entity that could order us to conceal
information," he said. "But there was nothing to conceal."

In his lengthy report, Priore complained that he had received incomplete and
vague information from NATO.

NATO officials in Brussels declined to comment on the indictment or the
broader allegations, but they said they had provided Italian authorities with
"all possible" information.

In a cautiously worded statement, Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema said
his government would "consider taking political initiatives toward our NATO
allies in order to find out what really happened to Itavia Flight 870."

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