Yak-42 Accident

Defense minister apologizes “on behalf of the state” to victims of 2003 military air crash

Dolores de Cospedal offers relatives of 62 soldiers killed aboard Yak-42 “moral reparation”

Spanish Defense Minister María Dolores de Cospedal formally accepted on Monday the findings of the Council of State – the government’s top advisory body – that her ministry bears responsibility for the 2003 air disaster in which 62 members of the Spanish armed forces were killed as they returned from Afghanistan.

Spanish Defense Minister María Dolores de Cospedal.
Spanish Defense Minister María Dolores de Cospedal.Carlos Rosillo

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Addressing a Congressional defense commission, Cospedal offered the relatives of those killed aboard a Yak-42 transport aircraft when it crashed into a mountainside near the Turkish city of Trabzon on May 26, 2003 “moral reparation”.

Although the defense minister did not use the word ‘sorry’ during her initial half-hour speech before the commission, she went on to apologize a total of five times on behalf of the state in response to the tough questions from opposition deputies that followed.

This is the first time that a member of Spain’s ruling Popular Party (PP), which was in power at the time of the accident, has accepted responsibility for the tragedy and apologized.

Cospedal, who took over as defense minister in November, met on January 10 with relatives of those killed in the air disaster, announcing that she accepted the findings of a Council of State report and promising a “change of attitude” in the government’s handling of the case.

Cospedal will be hoping her apology will close this long-running saga

The Council of State’s report, which EL PAÍS has reported on, 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.

“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.

But the Council of State’s findings will not result in further financial compensation for the relatives.

Calls for prime minister to apologize

Speaking in reply to Cospedal, opposition deputies on the defense commission called for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to also apologize on behalf of the state.

“The apology will not be complete until Rajoy does so before Congress,” said Antonio Hernando, the Socialist Party’s (PSOE) spokesman.

“I would have liked to see the prime minister accept the Council of State’s apology,” added Albert Rivera, the leader of center-right party Ciudadanos.

Pablo Iglesias, the secretary general of anti-austerity party Podemos, has also called for a tribute to the victims of the disaster and an apology from Rajoy. Iglesias on Monday also demanded that a new investigation into the plane crash be opened.

Opposition parties want Cospedal and Rajoy to attend a special session in Congress, which the PP opposes.

The opposition and families of the victims want the prime minister to apologize as well

Replying to opposition deputies, Cospedal said: “Now that almost 14 years have passed since the tragic events and the Defense Ministry has changed its opinion and recognizes the state’s objective responsibility, it is an important question of recognizing moral reparation and I have no problem in apologizing in the name of the state for not having done so before.”

Some 12 relatives of the victims of the crash attended the Congressional commission, the first time members of the public have been allowed to do so, with a further 25 watching via a video link in a nearby room in Congress. The families praised Cospedal for her apologies, but also called on Rajoy to oversee a tribute to the victims, and above all, an investigation into the disaster.

Cospedal’s words were an attempt to close the case – which has already been heard by three different courts – by offering moral reparation to the victims and accepting the state’s responsibility.

For this reason, she provided no new information to answer the questions of opposition deputies regarding the contracting of the flight, the money used, complaints about the airplane, the failure to take out insurance, mistakes in identifying the dead, or the fact that senior defense officials involved were all subsequently promoted, starting with Federico Trillo, who was defense minister at the time of the accident in 2003.

Trillo was appointed Spain’s ambassador to the United Kingdom in 2012. He stepped down from the post on Friday. Opposition deputies criticized the PP for steadfastly defending him over the last 14 years, during which relatives of the victims of the disaster have brought several lawsuits against him seeking damages and moral redress for the chain of mistakes that led to the crash.

“A lot of years have gone by and there are documents that were never requested and today it is very difficult for us to find them,” said Cospedal, who did mention Trillo during her speech before the defense commission.

“The flight contracts were never in the ministry’s possession, but we are going to try to find them,” she added.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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