President Clinton greeted Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi at the White House Wednesday with traditional military pomp and barely a mention of the issue that looms large over their meetings - the Marine jet accident that killed 20 skiers in the Italian Alps.
The tragedy was expected to come up in private meetings between the two leaders. In the splashy ceremony formally welcoming Prodi, Clinton made only passing references to United States troops in Italy - first to note that U.S. personnel from the Aviano air base were assisting in rescue efforts after this week's storms in southern Italy; and second, to thank Italians for their "hospitality toward United States forces working to preserve peace in Europe."Clinton stressed the long history shared by the United States and Italy. "The history of our partnership is long and special; every schoolchild knows that Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. . . . That was only the beginning of a relationship that has now flourished for centuries bringing us together in new ways generation after generation."
In his own remarks, from a reviewing stand on the South Lawn, Prodi called their two nations "two citizens of the next millennium bound by common values."
He said he wanted to pursue through the European Union a "vast sphere of free trade" between the United States and Europe "not only to best utilize our energy and to strengthen as much as possible our political and economic ties but also as a common contribution to the global trade liberalization."
White House spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters before Prodi's arrival that Clinton would have nothing more direct to say in public about the Marines' incident because the case was before a military tribunal.
Privately, Clinton was hoping to assuage any remaining sore feelings among the Italian people, McCurry said, and was anxious to see how Prodi will respond.
Meanwhile, at Camp Lejeune,N.C., an expert witness testifiedWednesday that the Marine jet flew as low as 301 feet in the Italian Alps before cutting the ski lift cable.
At the point of impact, the gondola-carrying cable was 370 feet above the ground, investigators have said.
The flight of the EA-6B Prowler was described Wednesday by Marine Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Poncelet, who prosecutors said is an expert navigator.
He said the plane flew as low as 301 feet above the ground during the six miles of its course before it hit the cable, although it was at 436 feet above the changing terrain 11 seconds before impact.
The Prowler, a communications-jamming and reconnaissance plane from the U.S. air base at Aviano, Italy, reportedly was prohibited from flying below 1,000 feet.
Poncelet testified at a hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury.