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U.S. vows to cooperate in Italian probe

As an angry nation demanded an accounting, U.S. officials promised Thursday to cooperate fully with Italians investigating why a Marine plane sliced a cable car line in the Alps, sending 20 Europeans to their deaths.

Residents of this small ski village in the Dolomites, who say the roar of jets often jolts them awake at night, mourned the dead at a memorial service.Among the 1,000 people attending the memorial 100 yards from the cable car station was Gen. Richard C. Bethurem, commander of NATO air operations in southern Europe, who expressed America's condolences.

"There's an ongoing investigation, a cooperation of Italian and U.S. authorities," he said. "It's our wish that this investigation comes to a quick ending so that the healing process can begin."

Italian Premier Romano Prodi accused the pilots of "tragic recklessness." Asked about the comment, a Pentagon official in Washington said, "We cannot dispute that," The New York Times said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Speaking before residents, schoolchildren and official delegations, an Italian priest summed up the feeling of many that their repeated complaints about low-flying planes went unheeded.

"The skies are not for the most powerful or for the most aggressive," said the Rev. Lorenzo Casarotti. "They are for everyone.

"Today, there are 20 people crying out against those who took over our skies. The people of Cavalese, officials have cried out about this. They went unheard," the priest said.

The Marine EA-6B Prowler swooped through the valley just above the treetops on Tuesday, severing the cable with its tail fin at a point about 300 feet above the ground. The plane continued on to the U.S. air base in Aviano, 60 miles to the east.

"Everyone hates how they fly through here at supersonic speeds, instilling fear in all of us," said Renzo Alegretti, a 63-year-old retired union worker. "They are crazy, completely irresponsible. It was an accident waiting to happen."

Italian politicians and local officials are just as outraged.

"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," Prodi said Wednesday.

The defense minister, Ben-ia-mi-no Andreatta, told Parliament the plane was as much as six miles off its planned course when it flew under the cable line.

"There would not have been any danger had the plane kept to the rules," Italian media quoted him as saying, adding that "what happened is incomprehensible."

Several influential lawmakers said all U.S. bases in Italy should be closed.

Officials at the plane's base in Aviano have not given the pilot's name, but said Thursday he was a 31-year-old Marine captain with 500 hours of flying time on the aircraft.

The mayor of Cavalese, a town of 3,600, proclaimed a day of mourning Thursday to honor the victims, who included eight Germans, five Belgians, two Italians and two Poles.

All ski lifts in the Val di Fiemme area shut down along with most of Cavalese's stores, restaurants and other businesses.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine team arrived in Aviano to investigate. Italian prosecutors have questioned the pilot and the three crew members but no charges have been filed.