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Italy's leaders demand prosecution of jet flier

Italy's defense minister demanded criminal prosecution Wednesday for an American military pilot whose plane sliced through a ski gondola's cable, sending the car's 20 riders plunging to their deaths.

The U.S. suspended all low-level flights by military aircraft in Italy after Tuesday's accident, which had some Italian media and politicians calling the U.S. pilots "Rambos" and demanding closing of all American bases there.American military officials and Italian prosecutors are investigating why the U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B surveillance jet, temporarily stationed at the U.S. air base in Aviano, hit the gondola's cable, sending the mostly foreign skiers in the gondola 280 feet onto rocks and snow below.

"This is not about a low-level flight but a terrible act, a nearly earth-shaving flight, beyond any limit allowed by the rules and laws," Premier Romano Prodi told reporters.

"We are not asking for revenge but that the law on criminal responsibility be applied to the commander of the airplane," Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.

Communist Party leaders, who provide the government with key support in Parliament, immediately called for the closing of U.S. bases. And commentators and local leaders expressed anger at the U.S. military.

"Do these Rambos, these pilots, take our mountains for a `zone of operations?' " wrote Mario Rigoni Stern in Wednesday' La Stampa of Turin.

Residents have long complained of low-flying U.S. pilots playing "games," such as flying under power lines or bridges around the valleys and peaks of the Dolomite Mountains here, said the president of Trento province, Car-lo Andreotti.

"There have been several witnesses who have reported seeing flights pass underneath (gondola) cables," he said by telephone.

"We have asked that these types of flights be stopped," he said, adding that it was too early to tell what caused Tuesday's accident.

He said there have been about 30 cases of military jets, including Italian ones, striking power lines in the northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige since 1990.

One of the gondola's operators, Franco Ochner, told RAI state television that he had seen 15 to 20 low-level military flights since Christmas at the resort.

"I've thought about it a thousand times, that an airplane would hit" the gondola line, he said.

The remains of the cable car lay on the snowy floor of a valley Wednesday, a mangle of flattened yellow metal.

The Defense Ministry said military flights must maintain a minimum of 500 feet above the ground or any structure such as pylons, power lines or cables.

It was unclear whether the defense minister wanted the United States or Italy to handle prosecution and whether Italian prosecutors had jurisdiction over the U.S. pilot.

Air Force Capt. Tracy O'Grady-Walsh, an Aviano spokeswoman, said the pilot had filed a flight plan and was on an approved mission.

The gondola fell several hundred feet short of the base station, carrying skiers back from Cermis mountain, said fire Chief Riccardo Selle. Officials earlier had said it was ascending.

Paolo Sartori, a police official in Trento, said the victims were 11 men and nine women. They included eight Germans, five Belgians, two Italians including the car operator, a Dutch citizen, an Austrian, one person with dual Austrian-Italian citizenship, and a Polish mother with her 14-year-old son. The boy's father had stayed behind with an injury, said a Polish diplomat who came to the scene.

President Clinton issued a statement Tuesday saying he was "deeply saddened" by the accident and that the United States will cooperate fully with the Italian government to find out what happened.

The pilot and his three-member crew returned safely to Aviano, 60 miles east of the resort, said Brig. Gen. Tim Peppe, commander of the base's resident 31st fighter wing.

Peppe, speaking at a news conference, did not speculate on a cause, though he discounted engine trouble.

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the pilot "was apparently unaware that he had struck a cable or injured anyone."