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US general admits cable car crash jet was flying too low

Bending to the fury of Italian public opinion, US military officials finally acknowledged yesterday that the aircraft which crashed into a cable-car line in the Dolomites and killed 20 people this week had been flying well below the minimum permitted altitude.

Brigadier-General Guy Vander Linden, the senior Marines commander in Europe, sought to mend the cracks that have opened in relations between Italy and the United States by overruling earlier statements by his colleagues, who had suggested there was nothing untoward about a combat aircraft shooting beneath cable-car lines at the speed of sound.

"The point of impact is well below the approved minimum altitude," he said. He also sought to mend a disagreement with the Italian Defence Ministry about the plane's flight path. He acknowledged that the plane was not on "the centreline of the flight track" when it hit the cable car, merely within a 10-nautical-mile-wide corridor.

The general's finely-tuned words were symptomatic of the tension that has built up between the two countries since Tuesday's accident. Despite pledges of full co-operation, the two countries have fallen out on everything from the causes of the accident to their respective rights to prosecute the Prowler aircraft's pilot and crew.

Yesterday, the Americans were forced to admit they had removed the plane's flight recorder after it returned to base even though it had been impounded by the Italian judiciary. They gave the flight recorder back after an angry denunciation by the public prosecutor.

A special military team flown out from the Marine base in Cherry Point, North Carolina, is working on its own investigation and intends to press any charges that arise in the United States.

Yesterday, leaks from Aviano, the US military base where the aircraft was based, suggested that the pilot, Richard Ashby, 30, was having problems with his altimeter at the time of the impact and did not intentionally dip so low into the valley above Cavalese. The Italian lawyer representing the crew also maintained that the cable car lines were not marked on two of the three maps in the plane.