Did NATO Shoot Down Airliner?

In 1980, an Italian airliner on a run between Bologna and Sicily vanished from radar screens. Wreckage from the DC-9 was later found in the sea and structural failure was blamed. Eighty-one people were killed in the crash, CBS News Senior European Correspondent Tom Fenton reports.

Forensic scientists later discovered there had been an explosion and so Italian terrorists were blamed. But an air traffic controller at Rome's Ciampino airport knew the truth and tipped off an Italian journalist.

"It was a missile which shot down that DC-9," newspaper correspondent Andrea Purgatori told 60 Minutes.

Purgatori says that for years NATO and the Pentagon denied there were any military planes flying in the area.

"Now through NATO and other evidence we know for sure that fighters and military transport planes were flying at the time of the accident," he says.

Part of that evidence came from the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington. It concluded from a radar plot that the airliner had been attacked by a fast fighter plane.

Other experts in Italy concluded that there were two planes flying the same route. One, flying underneath the DC-9, was probably the real target.

This fits the most likely of several scenarios which have now emerged from the Italian investigation. That a Libyan Mig fighter spying on American warships in the Mediterranean took refuge in the radar shadow of the DC-9 as it traveled south. But when attacked by a NATO plane, the Mig escaped and left the DC-9 to take the full force of an air-to-air missile.

The report of the investigating judge, Rosario Priore, speaks of "a wall of silence and lies" which he believes the United States is a central player.

He has indicted nine Italian military officials for participating in a high level cover-up.

But for the families who still grieve, the solution to the mystery hangs on the willingness of NATO, and in particular the United States, to tell all they know about what happened 19 years ago.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed