Italy has no official explanation for the Ustica tragedy, the country’s biggest aviation mystery. After various investigations by the Government and the courts, questions continue to abound and certainties can be counted on the fingers of one hand in the case of the commercial flight that crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea in 1980 with 81 people on board. Statements by former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato in which he slips that a French missile was able to bring down the plane have reopened the doors to controversy and speculation after four decades of uncertainty, at a delicate moment in relations between France and Italy.
In an interview this week with the newspaper La Repubblica, Amato, Prime Minister of Italy between 1992 and 1993 and between 2000 and 2001, maintains that “the most credible version is that of the responsibility of the French Air Force,” and explains that The Italian passenger aircraft was probably shot down by mistake by a French fighter that wanted to hit a military plane carrying Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. “The plan consisted of simulating NATO maneuvers, with many planes in action, during which a missile was going to be fired at the Libyan leader: the maneuvers were a setup that would allow the attack to be passed off as an involuntary incident.” , suggests Amato.
The air disaster dates back to June 27, 1980. At 8:59 p.m. that day, an Itavia passenger plane flying from Bologna to Palermo with 81 people on board crashed into the sea near the island of Ustica, north of Sicily. The case became a puzzle. For a time there was even talk of a bomb inside the plane and a structural failure of the aircraft, despite the fact that the study of the remains ruled out both hypotheses.
After endless investigations and trials that took place amid opacities, reluctance and disagreements, the thesis that the plane was shot down by mistake during an air combat between Libya and NATO became the most widespread. Another of the hypotheses most defended by the experts is that the passenger plane was damaged by the turbulence caused by the maneuvers of the fighters. Although no one has managed to clear up the numerous doubts about those responsible and about the dynamics of events. The interview with Amato, who in 1986 was in charge of investigating the accident, contains details that had not previously come to light and that could lead to new advances.
Among other things, the former prime minister has also tried to clear up another mystery apparently related to the catastrophe: the discovery of the body of a Libyan aviator and the remains of his airplane in the Calabrian mountains a few weeks after the Ustica tragedy. “Having sensed the danger of all that movement in the sky, the Libyan pilot hid near the Italian passenger plane to avoid being hit. But all the unforeseen aerial maneuvers caused it to run out of fuel, so it ended up crashing in the mountains,” Amato points out.
The Rome prosecutor’s office is now considering whether to listen to Amato in court. Prosecutors were inclined to definitively close the investigations, but with the new revelations they are reconsidering it. They reopened the case in 2008 precisely after statements by Francesco Cossiga, who was Prime Minister at the time of the incident, in which he stated that the secret services informed him at that time that it had been a missile fired from the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau. off the southern coast of Corsica the one that had shot down the Italian plane.
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SubscribeFrancesco Cossiga was the Prime Minister of Italy at the time of the event.EPA
Now Amato, who has also led different ministries throughout his political career and who has been president of the Constitutional Court, calls on the French government and President Emmanuel Macron to clarify France’s possible responsibilities, to apologize to the families of the victims, or that demonstrate that the French country was oblivious to what happened.
As soon as the interview was published, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni asked Giuliano Amato to “make available to the Executive” the elements at his disposal, “so that the Government can take all possible and consequent measures.” The far-right leader pointed out that the former prime minister’s statements about Ustica are “important words that deserve attention,” although she specified that “they are the result of personal deductions.” Vice President Matteo Salvini indicated that Amato’s words “are of unprecedented gravity,” asked to know “if there are concrete elements that support his words” and added: “Given the weight of the statements and their relevant role at the time of the facts, we await the comments of the French authorities”.
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has indicated, in a statement, that France “has provided all the elements at its disposal whenever requested,” especially during judicial investigations, but that it was available to “collaborate with Italy if requests it.” The case has once again come to light at a delicate moment for relations between France and Italy, which since Meloni came to power last October have gone through several episodes of tension over immigration.
After the initial uproar caused by his interview, Amato has clarified that he has no certain elements or new evidence to support his theory. “I only put on the table a hypothesis that was already firmly believed, not because I had strong elements, but to urge those who do have them to speak, to tell the truth. Nothing more,” he said. In Italy, the relatives of the victims and numerous independent investigators share the theory of the responsibility of the French aviation in what happened. Although no one has managed to clarify the enigma.
The defenders of this thesis consider that the crashed plane in the mountains of Calabria proves the theory that in the summer of 1980 one or several air combats took place in the skies of the central Mediterranean. One of the judges in the case highlighted in one of the proceedings that at that time there were only two powers present in the Mediterranean with missiles and aircraft carriers: the United States and France. In those years there were several armed incidents between Libya and the United States, which maintained a particularly tense relationship. France had military and economic interests in Africa that competed with Gaddafi’s expansionist policy, especially in the sub-Saharan region.
The Italian historian Cora Ranci, who has published a historical reconstruction of the tragedy, maintains that “there are good reasons to suspect.” And she is based on the fact that the radars located the tracks of an aircraft that from Corsica advanced in the direction of the accident area. The French authorities provided documents that showed that on the day of the catastrophe the aircraft carrier Clemenceau was in the port of Toulon, far from the Tyrrhenian Sea.
However, some Italian journalistic investigations cast doubt on the French version and point out that judicial cooperation between France and Italy was never productive. “French responses to the Rome prosecutors have often been evasive about the many clarifications requested,” La Repubblica noted. The former Defense Minister of the Amato government, Salvo Andò, has recently denounced that the French “have always put up passive resistance to find out the truth.” And he has pointed out that the Americans and the French “were bothered” by Italy’s “friendly relationship” with the Libyan regime.
In the French military archives there could be elements that allow us to reconstruct what happened and clarify the true French involvement. But France is one of the countries where official secrecy lasts the longest and, therefore, unless Macron intervenes directly, these documents will not be declassified before 2040.
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