WASHINGTON -- As outrage spread across Europe over the acquittal of a Marine pilot in the deaths of 20 Alpine skiers, a "shocked" Italian prime minister appealed directly to President Clinton yesterday for justice, demanding that someone in the chain of command be punished.
Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema made it clear that he could accept the acquittal by a military court of Marine Corps Capt. Richard J. Ashby, whose low-flying jet clipped two gondola wires a year ago and sent 20 vacationers to their deaths in the Italian Alps. But he told Clinton that if the pilot is not held responsible, then others involved should be charged and punished.
"It is not normal for a military aircraft to fly in a valley 300 feet from the ground," D'Alema told reporters at a joint news conference with Clinton after their private meeting. "It is neither normal nor acceptable that this leads to the consequences it did lead to. We expect that at the end of this process, it is made clear who was responsible for this accident and that these people are punished."
Clinton announced that Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and the Italian defense minister would jointly assess the adequacy of safety measures at U.S. air bases in Italy. And he again stressed that America shoulders the blame for the accident.
"The United States is responsible for this terrible tragedy,"Clinton said. "Again, I want to say to the people of Italy, on behalf of the American people, we are profoundly regretful and apologetic for what has occurred."
The White House meeting between Clinton and D'Alema had been planned long ago. But its timing proved to be particularly delicate. Some members of the Italian Parliament demanded yesterday that NATO bases in Italy be shut down, calling the verdict in the Ashby trial a violation of Italy's national sovereignty.
The Italian undersecretary of defense, Paolo Guerrini, said that Italy's Parliament should review the provisions of the NATO treaty that gave the United States jurisdiction to try Ashby and his navigator.
Both D'Alema and Clinton sought to ease tensions, saying flatly that the air bases would remain and that the treaty would be preserved. The NATO treaty provides that military personnel be tried in their countries of origin for alleged misconduct. That treaty, D'Alema stressed, can be revised only "by all the countries that signed it, if it is to be revised."
As for the air bases, they "are not a concession to someone else," D'Alema said. "They are a tool to defend our own security and our common security."
Clinton could offer few concrete concessions to his Italian counterpart to take home to his angry citizens. The president would not comment on the verdict, saying he could say nothing that would affect continuing judicial action.
Ashby still faces trial for obstruction of justice, having been accused of hiding, then helping to destroy, a videotape recording that his navigator had made during the disastrous flight.
And the navigator, Capt. Joseph P. Schweitzer, is still awaiting trial on 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of dereliction of duty and negligence in destroying the Italian cable car system and damaging his $60 million EA-6B Prowler jet -- the same counts Ashby faced.
At the news conference yesterday, despite Clinton's show of sympathy, it was D'Alema who appeared to be in a bind. He became prime minister in October, the first former Communist to hold the post, and he leads a fragile coalition government in a notoriously unstable political system.
"We are not asking for a scapegoat," he insisted. "I do not know who was responsible for what happened. It is up to the justice system to determine who was responsible and who is guilty."
In a series of interviews yesterday, Ashby again offered his condolences to the victims' families, saying he would welcome the opportunity to personally apologize to them.
But family members did not seem ready for reconciliation. The accident, on Feb. 3, 1998, killed seven Germans, five Belgians, three Italians, two Poles, two Austrians and a Dutch woman.
"It gives us the feeling they were killed the second time," Margaretha Anthonissen, a Belgian who lost her 24-year-old daughter, told reporters.
"That's really the feeling we have today. It will be worse than before. It will be more difficult because of the idea they were cut off the earth without any reason, without any justification, just like that," she said, snapping her fingers. "And no one is taking responsibility."
Newspapers and politicians throughout European capitals began voicing protest yesterday against what they saw as a miscarriage of justice.
Washington's ambassador in Rome, Thomas M. Foglietta, said in a statement yesterday that the verdict "shocked" him.
After "speaking to our military experts in the Department of Defense, I concluded and said that the pilots flying that plane were flying too fast and too low, and that it was our fault," Foglietta said. "Like many, I am surprised at the verdict."