ROME (AP) — An Italian court has ordered the government to pay euro100 million ($137 million) in civil damages to relatives of 81 people killed in a 1980 aircraft disaster that remains one of Italy's most enduring mysteries.
The government said Tuesday it would appeal the decision of the Palermo civil tribunal, which on Monday held Italy's transport and defense ministries liable for having failed to guarantee the security of the flight.
The Itavia DC-9 airliner crashed June 27, 1980 en route from Bologna to Palermo near the tiny Mediterranean island of Ustica. The cause remains a mystery. Among the theories are that there was a bomb on board or that the airliner might have been caught accidentally in the crossfire of a military aerial dogfight.
Attorney Daniele Osnato, who along with a handful of lawyers represented about 80 relatives of the victims, said justice had finally been rendered in the case.
In addition to determining that the ministries had failed to protect the flight, he said, the tribunal also determined they were responsible for concealing the truth and destroying evidence.
Government officials on Tuesday called the judgment "unacceptable" given that Italy's highest criminal court in 2007 upheld the acquittals of two retired air force generals who had been accused of withholding information about the crash. In 2004, charges against two other former generals were dismissed.
Italy's air force expressed clear disdain for the decision, noting in a statement Tuesday that it was made by a single judge in a civil court whereas its generals had been absolved by Italy's highest criminal court for lack of evidence.
The aerial dogfight theory was given credence by Judge Rosario Priore, who originally indicted the generals. Priore had theorized that a missile from a U.S. jet fighter or from another NATO plane accidentally hit the Italian domestic jetliner while trying to shoot down a Libyan plane. A month after the crash, the wreckage of a Libyan jet was found in southern Italy.
French, U.S. and NATO officials have long denied any military activity in the skies that night.