ROME An Italian court said on Monday the cause of one of the country's most enduring aviation mysteries, a plane that broke up over the coast of Sicily 32 years ago killing 81 people, was most probably a missile hitting the aircraft.
The case has divided Italians since the plane went down on June 27, 1980, when Italy was still the scene of both Cold War tensions and domestic militancy from the left and the right.
The court, in what is seen as the final ruling of many, said the state must pay damages to the victims' families because the safety of the passengers had not been guaranteed.
There were "ample and congruent" indications that a missile was the cause of the disaster, the court said in its decision.
A court in 2004 said the plane went down in a "war-like scenario". But numerous investigations failed to determine whether the plane, a DC-9 of the now-defunct domestic airline Itavia, was destroyed by a bomb or a missile.
It broke up over the southern Mediterranean near the island of Ustica, whose name has become synonymous with the incident.
Media reports based on radar monitoring data said fighter aircraft from several NATO nations were in the area at the time of the crash, possibly following a Libyan MIG that was trying to evade radar control by flying close to the civilian plane.
Another theory was that the plane had entered a military exercise area and was hit by a missile launched by a fighter jet that had mistaken it for an enemy intruder.
Most Italians believe the cause of the crash, which has been the subject of a film and numerous books, was covered up for security or military reasons.
During investigations, documents disappeared and air traffic voice recordings were found to have either been erased or tampered with.
In 2007, an appeals court upheld an acquittal handed down in 2004 of two former air force generals who had been accused of giving false information about the disaster.
That ruling had been considered the end of the case but the investigation was reopened in 2009 after former President Francesco Cossiga said he was sure the plane had been hit by a missile. Cossiga died in 2010.
Italian courts publish the reasonings behind their rulings weeks or months after they are made public. No further details were available about the latest ruling.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Louise Ireland)