Interview. In 1980, an Italian jetliner plunged under mysterious circumstances into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Nearly four decades later, an American sailor has rekindled hope for an explanation.

In Ustica, ‘now we know everything but the names’

We spoke with Daniele Osnato, an attorney who has represented several relatives of the victims of the crash of Aerolinee Itavia Flight 870, a DC-9 which plunged into the sea near the island of Ustica in June 1980. On Wednesday, a former member of the U.S. Navy, who was there the night of the crash, said in an interview that there was a firefight between U.S. and Libyan war planes, bolstering the theory that the commercial plane was shot down rather than blown up by terrorists.

Have we arrived at a breakthrough for the Ustica tragedy?

It’s not really a breakthrough, it’s an element that adds to what we know of the truth. I think that what happened on the evening of June 27, 1980, was connected to a complex military operation. The French were definitely present, because we have the radar tracks, and probably the Belgians and the British, too; the Italians were present, and now we know that the United States were there as well. It was an extremely complex situation, in which one can see from the radar tracks that another plane was flying right under the track of the DC-9.

Everyone was in the air that night. The radar environment was extremely complex. You can see all these radar tracks of planes with their transponders turned off—the radio devices that serve to identify the flight. From the radar station at Ciampino, they can be seen “flying under the radar,” as they say in military jargon about radar tracks that can be seen at a certain attitude, and then, when they go lower, the radar doesn’t see them anymore. But they were there, as there was an aircraft carrier there. We can’t say now whether it was French or American, but there was one.

Could these new developments change what we know of the events to this day?

They won’t bring any radical change. A missile shot down the DC9, that was what the civil magistrates said, and basically the criminal investigation didn’t disagree. What changes is the international context and the responsibilities of the international actors. We have also submitted a letter rogatory to the European Parliament asking for an investigative commission about the role of the French. Maybe now is the opportunity to submit a letter rogatory for everyone, not just the French. This is the changing context, and it is a very complex context, in which, as Judge Priore said, an act of military aggression was committed during peacetime. Now we know that it was a complex act of military aggression, involving more than one country.

But I want to add one thing: There’s always someone saying that there is a conflict between the findings of the criminal and the civil proceedings. In summary, this view says that the Court of Assizes ruled that it could not have been a missile, thus concluding that a bomb must have been what caused the crash of the DC-9. This is false. If people read the sentence passed in the criminal case, they would see that it absolutely excluded, on a fundamental level, that there could have been a bomb inside the plane, and then ends by saying that, with regard to a missile or a mid-air collision, there was no way to prove such an event with the physical evidence available. So there is no conflict.

Do the American sailor’s statements turn the focus away from the possibility of the French bearing responsibility?

I am convinced that, whether the missile turns out to be French or American, that does not change the responsibilities involved. I only know that the French were present, I can’t know whether they were merely on the lookout or they actively participated in this attack, whose only victim was the civilian flight carrying 81 Italian citizens. Over the years, all the countries involved have been very good at playing the three-card monte, always leading us to see the truth under the wrong card. Thirty-seven years had to pass until witnesses came forward so we could put the pieces together.

You have represented some relatives of the victims of Ustica in a civil lawsuit. And the civil court, for the first time, spoke of a situation of war.

A situation of war was already suggested by Judge Priore, who led the main investigation. As a civil judge, he could be asked the pertinent question: What actually happened? And the judges in the civil suits—the first was Judge Protopisani—said the plane was certainly shot down by a missile and that it was certainly an act of war. This was the conclusion of an extremely complicated judicial process, which eventually gave us the factual truth. Now we know everything but the names.

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