Spanish ambassador to UK resigns over 2003 military air crash

Federico Trillo, who was then defense minister, speaks to press in London but fails to mention tragedy

Spain’s ambassador to the UK, Federico Trillo, has stepped down following a political storm over a recent government report that laid responsibility for a 2003 military air crash at the doorstep of the Defense Ministry, which he headed at the time. Until now, the Popular Party (PP) had steadfastly defended Trillo throughout more than a decade of lawsuits by relatives seeking damages and moral redress for the chain of mistakes that led to 62 deaths when a Yak-42 aircraft crashed into a mountainside near Trabzon, in Turkey.

Federico Trillo in a file photo in London.
Federico Trillo in a file photo in London.Isabel Infantes (Cordon Press)

The investigation found that half the bodies were misidentified, that the troops had been uninsured, and that most of the money budgeted for chartering flights had mysteriously vanished. Only two military officials were ever convicted, and later pardoned by the government.

But a damning report by the Council of State revealed last week by EL PAÍS has changed the government’s position on Trillo.

The only thing we want now is dignity – that’s our real war

Miguel Ángel Sencianes, spokesman for victims’ families

On Thursday evening, the former defense minister called a press conference with the Spanish media in London – with only a 30-minute warning – to state that he would be leaving the embassy the following day.

But Trillo never once mentioned the Yak-42 case, instead framing the move as something that had been long planned.

“I informed the government a long time ago about my intention to be relieved as ambassador to the UK, a position I have held for over four years,” he said in a two-minute statement. “In recent days I have asked for this to take place as soon as possible, so as not to interfere with the government’s actions. It will happen tomorrow.”

Although career diplomats have time limits on their ambassadorial appointments, politicians like Trillo do not, meaning that the government could have kept him in the post indefinitely.

The announcement came just hours after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy openly backed the current defense minister, María Dolores de Cospedal, in her decision to accept the conclusions of the Council of State’s report. De Cospedal, also met with relatives to assure them that the PP government will show greater sensitivity to their plight from now on.

Trillo at the crash site in May 2003.
Trillo at the crash site in May 2003.EFE

When the report first came out, Rajoy’s reaction was to say that the crash “happened years and years ago” and that the case was closed.

But pressure has been mounting on Trillo ever since EL PAÍS unveiled the contents of the report. In an unprecedented move, 13 retired ambassadors sent a letter to Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis asking for Trillo to be immediately removed from his post. And José Bono, Trillo’s successor at the Defense Ministry, recently unveiled details of how he was hampered in his efforts to investigate the crash further.

Miguel Ángel Sencianes, president of the association that represents relatives of the Yak-42 victims, said that they are unhappy at the vague way in which Trillo announced his departure from the London embassy.

“If he is really resigning, let him say it, instead of saying that he asked to be relieved a long time ago,” said this spokesman. “Let’s see him assume political responsibility and let’s see the government clear up whether he is being removed or relieved. We no longer have anything to win in this story, because we’ve already lost it all. The only thing we want now is dignity – that’s our real war. Let them assume responsibility and not frame it like something else. We can’t take any more lies.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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