ROME -- An Italian airliner that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea in 1980, killing all 81 people aboard, was shot down by an unidentified military aircraft, according to a five-year investigation, the Corriere della Sera newspaper said.
'The Itavia DC-9 was shot down by an air-to-air missile,' the Milan newspaper reported Wednesday. 'For the first time in nine years the team of six experts named by investigating magistrate Vittorio Bucarelli is about to make official this uncomfortable but explosive truth.'
The 700-page finding of the six-member committee of Italian experts will be given to the magistrate, who must decide who to prosecute.
Although the report did not identify the warplane that downed the airliner, speculation has long focused on a possible accidental missile firing by U.S. or Italian warplanes based in southern Italy. NATO has denied any involvement by its forces.
'So far the experts' committee report has not arrived at my office,' Bucarelli said. He would not comment on the accuracy of the newspaper reports.
The twin-engine McDonnell Douglas DC-9 of the domestic Italian airline Itavia crashed June 27, 1980, into the Mediterranean near the island of Ustica, 50 miles north of Palermo, Sicily, killing all 76 passengers and five crew members.
The plane was headed from Bologna to Palermo when it vanished from radar screens and crashed into the sea, sinking to the bottom.
In 1986, large sections of debriswere recovered from the sea floor 11,500 feet below the surface and delivered to investigators in Britain and Italy.
The DC-9 was long believed to have been shot down accidentally by a missile fired from an unidentified plane, possibly a U.S. or Italian jet fighter chasing a Libyan MiG-23 that entered Italian air space that day.
The Libyan MiG-23 was found crashed in Sicily, some 180 miles east of Ustica, 20 days after the DC-9 disaster. Some Italian medical experts said an autopsy carried out on the Libyan pilot indicated he had died three weeks before his plane was found. Other medical experts disagreed.
The missile theory was revived intermittently through the years and persisted despite denials by NATO forces operating in the Mediterranean that any of their military aircraft were near Ustica at the time of the DC-9 crash.
'It is no longer just the most believed theory but a fact ascertained without, it seems, any possibility of doubt: the Itavia DC-9 was shot down ... by an air-to-air heat-seeking missile with an infra-red warhead fired by a military fighter plane,' the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero reported.
According to the newspaper dispatches, clearly based on leaks of the report, tests on sections of the aircraft conducted at a British laboratory definitely ruled out structural failure or a bomb as the cause of the crash.
The report said splinters of the aluminum skin of the fuselage found embedded in seats, and other technical factors showed the DC-9 was hit by a heat-seeking air-to-air missile in the forward section, between the cockpit and the wing of the plane.
Noises deciphered from the airliner's cockpit voice recorder also were compatible with a high-speed missile hitting the plane, the experts reported.
Records from various civilian and military radar stations that monitored the DC-9's flight were contradictory. But some of them were interpreted by experts as showing what appeared to be two air force fighters in the vicinity, the nearest 5.7 miles from the DC-9, the report said.