YAK-42 Accident

Defense minister accepts responsibility for 2003 military air crash

Dolores de Cospedal promises families of 62 victims “change of attitude” but probe won’t be reopened

Spain’s defense minister, María Dolores de Cospedal, has fully accepted the findings of the Council of State – the government’s top advisory body – that her ministry, then led by Federico Trillo, bears responsibility for the 2003 airplane crash in which 62 members of the Spanish armed forces were killed as they returned from Afghanistan. Cospedal met with relatives of the victims on Tuesday for 90 minutes, promising a “change of attitude” in the government’s handling of the case.

Families of the victims of the Yak-42 accident.
Families of the victims of the Yak-42 accident.Samuel Sanchez

Until now, Spain’s ruling Popular Party, which was also in power in May 2003 when the Yak-42 transport plane crashed into a mountainside near the Turkish city of Trabzon, has denied that the Defense Ministry was in any way responsible for the tragedy.

After Tuesday’s meeting, relatives of the victims said they were “comforted” by Cospedal’s approach, and were prepared to “make a new start” and that they “trusted” she would keep her word.

Cospedal is due to present the Council of State's findings before Congress

Curra Ripollés, the spokeswoman for the association that represents relatives of the victims, said on Tuesday: “Although the word ‘sorry’ was not used during the meeting, Cospedal’s intention to clarify the facts is enough for the families.”

The Council of State's report, which EL PAÍS reported on last week, admits to the state’s responsibility in the greatest tragedy to befall the Spanish army in peace time.

“There are facts, prior to the date of the crash, that would have allowed the administration to ponder the particular concurrent risk of the troop transport in which the accident took place,” reads the report, to which EL PAÍS has had access.

“Put differently, certain circumstances could have been noted that would have led the competent bodies to adopt measures that might have removed the risk that was being run,” adds the document.

The Council of State’s findings will not result in further financial compensation for the relatives, but it is a moral victory after more than a decade of setbacks.

“We don't care about compensation,” said Miguel Ángel Sencianes, the president of the families’ association on Tuesday, adding that he wanted the truth to be known, and describing the attitude of Federico Trillo in the aftermath of the disaster as “insulting and humiliating.”

Trillo is Spain’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Following the release of the Council of State’s findings last week, opposition parties called for him to be relieved of his position. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy came out in defense of the diplomat, who has since been relieved from his role as ambassador, along with 70 other diplomats who have served out their terms. The move is not, the government claims, related to the report about the Yak crash. Diplomatic career regulations set out a period of between three and five years for an ambassador. Trillo was sent to London in March 2012, which puts him within this time frame.

Cospedal’s intention to clarify the facts is enough for the families Curra Ripollés, spokeswoman for relatives of victims

Ripollés concluded that by accepting the Council of State’s non-binding findings, Cospedal had confirmed that the Yak-42 was an “illegal flight,” that the aircraft should never have taken off, and that the accident could have been avoided.

However, in the Defense Ministry's statement concerning the meeting on Tuesday, it recognized the state’s liability “is not associated with the affirmation of the concurrency of subjective actions generative of any type of blame.” In other words, there will be no further judicial investigation or demands on Trillo of responsibility.

At Tuesday’s meeting, in which the name of Trillo was not mentioned by Cospedal, the families called on the minister to find the contracts related to the 43 troop transport flights prior to the accident and to establish why the obligatory insurance policy was not taken out. Cospedal reportedly told the families that she would investigate “on land, sea and air,” although she noted that José Bono, a former defense minister and a senior official in the Socialist Party administration that came into office in 2004, was unable to locate the contracts in question despite numerous efforts.

The results of the investigation and of the Council of State’s findings into the Yak-42 disaster will be laid out in a report that Cospedal is due to present before Congress. If this concludes, as yesterday’s events suggest, that Trillo was responsible, even if he is not guilty judicially, it is hard to see how he could retain his position as ambassador to the United Kingdom for a day longer.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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