Italy Asks Big Questions After US Jet Disaster

A US military team arrived yesterday to investigate. Politicians want a review of bases.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Political debate over foreign military bases in Italy has been rekindled after a United States military jet severed the cable of a sky lift in Cavalese, Italy, killing 20 people.

The low-flying maneuver by the Marine EA-6B Prowler on Wednesday has provoked consternation throughout Italy, where officials said it was illegal.

"The law exists. It is clear, it is severe, but it was not respected," Mario Arpino, head of the Italian Air Force, told the Rome daily La Repubblica.

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Italy's Defense Ministry said military flights are required to stay at least 500 feet above the ground. Under Marine Corps rules, Prowlers must maintain a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet on training missions.

There are conflicting reports as to just how low the plane was flying, but all said the craft was below minimum levels.

The four marines aboard the jet, which is used for electronic surveillance in the NATO-led mission in Bosnia, are not speaking about the incident.

A US Marine team has arrived at the US air base in Aviano, Italy, to investigate. Italian prosecutors are also conducting a separate inquiry, but no charges have yet been filed.

In the wake of Tuesday's tragedy, many left-wing Italian politicians are asking what role foreign military bases should play now that the cold war is over.

The loudest calls come from the Communist Refoundation party, which supports but does not belong to the ruling center-left coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi. The party urged the closing of American military bases in Italy, to be followed by a discussion of Italy's role in NATO. The Communists favor dissolution of the Atlantic alliance.

Several representatives of political forces within the governing coalition, while not going so far as to talk of closing foreign bases, did say that the time had come to "rethink" or "take another look at" existing protocols.

The center-right opposition, however, rejected any review of existing accords. It asked why authorities, and in particular Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta, apparently took no action on protests from residents of the northwest province of Trent about low-flying military aircraft (mostly Italian jets) in the area around Cavalese.

Italian newspapers yesterday published copies of correspondence little more than a year old between the provincial government of Trent and Mr. Andreatta, in which he said low-flying missions were "of fundamental importance" to Italian military training.

Speaking Wednesday from Cavalese, however, he said that there had been no reason for the US plane to be flying as low as it was, adding, "It was a clear violation of rules."

Also in Cavalese, Prime Minister Prodi said he had received assurances from President Clinton that the US government would cooperate with Italian judicial probes into the disaster.

Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who did not travel to the scene, expressed the sentiments of many Italians, saying, "It would be terrible to think that someone could play games without thinking of the lives of others."

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