A U.S. Air Force plane carrying the remains of Maj. Fernando Ribas Dominici left for the United States Saturday, three years after the pilot was killed during a bombing raid over Libya.

The flag-draped metal casket was loaded into a C-141 transport plane that flew to the U.S. air base at Torrejon, Spain, where the body was being prepared for burial.A Pentagon spokesman said no departure time has been set for the flight to the United States. "It could be later today or tomorrow. It depends on completing the mortuary affairs," said a spokesman.

Ribas was the pilot of a F-111 fighter-bomber that was the only U.S. plane shot down by Libyan anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and Benghazi on April 15, 1986.

The remains initially were believed to be that Capt. Paul F. Lorence, navigation-weapons system officer in the F-111. But exhaustive forensic tests performed Friday at Rome university's Institute of Legal Medicine by three American and three Italian specialists established that it was the remains of Ribas, 33, of Puerto Rico.

"After examining the documentation shown by the U.S. authorities and carrying out the technical examination of the body necessary to identify it, the (medical) team came to the unanimous conclusion that it was the body of Fernando Ribas Dominici," Professor Luigi Macchiarelli, director of the university Institute, told reporters.

"This identification was made possible mainly on the basis of a comparison of the condition of the teeth with dental records in the possession of the American authorities," he said.

Macchiarelli said Lorence's remains apparently were never found.

Ribas' remains were brought to Rome Friday in a Libyan Air Force Ilyushin transport plane. The repatriation, ordered by Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi and called a humanitarian gesture by Tripoli, was largely viewed by U.S. officials as a public relations effort.

Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls said Libya first requested the assistance of the Holy See in December - before the Jan. 4 downing of two Libyan MiG jets by U.S. Navy planes in the Mediterranean plunged U.S.-Libyan relations to a new low.

"In the context of the Christmas festivities, Libya wanted once again, and in a rather special way, to show that reconciliation is the best way to start a new phase, a new stage of peace, especially with America", said Monsignor Martinelli, Vatican envoy in Libya who accompanied Ribas' remains to Rome Friday.

In a Vatican radio broadcast Saturday, he said that Libya intended its action as "a gesture of a will to reconcile, a will to start over again" in its relations with the United States.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Friday that the U.S. government had "no direct or indirect" contact with Libya regarding the return.