WASHINGTON -- In an unusual display of frustration between close allies, the Italian prime minister told President Clinton on Friday that he was shocked at the acquittal of a U.S. pilot in the deaths of 20 tourists in Italy and said he would not be satisfied until someone was punished.
"We shall say we are satisfied when whoever is responsible for what happened is found guilty and punished," the prime minister, Massimo D'Alema, told Clinton at a news conference here as the two stood just a few feet apart. "With so many casualties and so many deaths, you can hardly ever say you are satisfied."It was remarkable for a visiting head of state to put the president on the defensive on his own turf.
Clinton said that he was "profoundly regretful" for the deaths and that the United States was taking steps to try to prevent such accidents in the future, but he said he could not comment further because of pending legal proceedings related to other charges in the matter.
D'Alema, making no attempt to conceal his frustration, repeatedly hammered the idea that the Italians, indeed much of Europe, were demanding accountability and punishment.
"It is not normal for a military aircraft to fly in a valley 300 feet from the ground," D'Alema said. "It is neither normal nor acceptable that this leads to the consequences it did lead to. We expect that at the end of the process, it is made clear who was responsible for this accident and that these people are punished for it."
Clinton finally blurted out that the United States was "not trying to duck its responsibility," but the lingering impression was that D'Alema found the president's response inadequate. The 20 tourists died last year in the Italian Alps.