Anger grows in Italy over skiers killed by US aircraft

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Initial shock over the horrific accident caused by a low-flying US military aircraft at a Dolomites ski resort is quickly turning to fury over the presence in Italy of the planes which have been an irritant for years. Andrew Gumbel reports from Rome.

The Italian government sharply increased pressure on the United States yesterday to admit responsibility for the deaths of 20 skiers whose cable car in the Dolomites resort of Cavalese was knocked to the ground by a low-flying US military training aircraft.

As stunned and angry locals mourned the dead at a memorial service in the parish church, there were signs of growing tension between the two countries over the cause of the accident and the appropriate way to apportion responsibility for the investigation.

Italy's defence minister, Beniamino Andreatta, told a parliamentary defence committee that the aircraft, a EA-6B Prowler being used to back up Nato peace-keeping operations in Bosnia, had deviated by as much as six miles from its flight path and was flying so far below the minimum altitude that it actually dipped beneath the cable-car cord that it severed with the tip of its tail-wing. "If the aircraft had stuck by the rules, there would have been no accident," Mr Andreatta said.

The allegation that the aircraft had left its flight path was flatly denied by General Guy Vanderlinden of the Marines in a news conference at the US air base at Aviano. US officials also took issue with the minimum altitude for low-flying missions cited by Mr Andreatta and others, suggesting the limit was as low as 80m.

In principle, the Italians and Americans have agreed to co-operate; a special US Marines investigating committee, which began work yesterday, is being joined by an Italian air force colonel as an observer, and the Aviano base has been opened to Italian civilian prosecutors.

But in practice it is far from clear who has jurisdiction over what. On Wednesday, the Italian prosecutors attempted to question the pilot and crew of the Prowler but were told the four men had decided to remain silent. The Americans, meanwhile, have made it clear they want to carry out their own investigation first - leaving open the question of whether the four men would ever be allowed to come to trial in Italy.

Although it seems inconceivable that Italy would ask the Americans to pack up their military bases and go home, anti-US sentiment has reached heights unseen since the darkest days of the Cold War. The accident has prompted talk of colonialist arrogance and "Rambos in the sky", reminiscent of a time when Italians, particularly those on the left, strongly resented being treated as little more than a geopolitical domino by the Pentagon and the White House.

America's image has been tarnished further by the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal. "Down with Clinton, you're just a womaniser and a warmonger, a prostitute to power and war," was the reaction of one priest in Cavalese, Don Tommaso Volcan, as he first saw the mutilated bodies and twisted metal on the snow-covered slopes near his church.

The Americans are not the only scapegoat, however. The Italians have also turned considerable anger on their own government. The provincial council in Trento has published a letter from Mr Andreatta in December 1996 explaining that low-flying exercises were an essential part of military training and that inhabited areas could not be avoided because Italy was too densely populated.