Relatives of slain peacekeepers shout 'murderer' at PM

Thursday, May 29, 2003

TORREJON DE ARDOZ, Spain -- Relatives of Spanish peacekeepers killed in a plane crash in Turkey shouted "murderer" at Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his defense minister as they attended a Mass for the victims along with King Juan Carlos.

The confrontation took place as Aznar and Defense Minister Federico Trillo were walking behind the king to shake hands with relatives at the ceremony, held at Torrejon de Ardoz air base near Madrid where the coffins were flown in from Turkey earlier in the day.

The king, dressed in military uniform, and Queen Sofia were greeted effusively but shouting from the back rows and angry finger-pointing began when Aznar and Trillo approached.

All 62 Spanish peacekeepers and 13 crew aboard the aircraft were killed when the Yak 42 crashed early Monday. The crew included 12 Ukrainians and a Belarussian.

The Spanish troops were flying home after four months of peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

On Monday, Trillo defended the YAK-42s leased from Ukrainian-Mediterranean Airlines (UM Air), calling them among the best available. He said several other NATO countries also used them. Spain's contract for the planes was made by British company Chapman Freeborn, which works with the alliance.

Trillo said Wednesday that initial investigations showed pilot error may have caused the crash. Ukranian-Mediterranean Airlines has denied there were technical or mechanical problems with the plane.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma suggested Turkish air traffic controllers could bear some blame in the crash, saying Wednesday that the plane should have been rerouted to another airport after previous attempts to land in dense fog failed.

But Norwegian and Finnish military officials echoed the safety concerns of Spanish politicians.

Norwegian Armed Forces information chief Brig. Finn K. Hannestad said in Oslo, Norway, they had stopped using the Ukrainian company in February because Norweigan inspectors had questions with the company's maintenance practices.

"We take safety seriously, and that's why we stopped using this company," he said.

Finnish military officials expressed similar misgivings.

Lt. Col. Kimmo Salomaa said the same type of airplane had been used in peacekeeping operations until recently, when the contract was terminated because of poor maintenance and inadequate safety measures.

The Ukrainian company's YAK-42s were popular in Afghanistan because few other companies were willing to fly there.

"The type of the aircraft in itself was not instrumental in our decision to cancel the contract, but rather the level of maintenance the company (UM airlines) showed," Salomaa said.

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