A cargo plane used by military henchmen during Argentina's "dirty war" to fly leftists over the ocean and push them to their deaths has been brought back to the country, where it may go on display in a museum on the horrors of dictatorship.
The Belfast-built Skyvan PA-51 cargo plane landed in Buenos Aires on Saturday, AFP confirmed, after sleuths traced it to the United States, where for much of the last decade it had been ferrying skydivers with few aware of its gruesome history.
An official ceremony on Monday will mark the plane's return, amid a push to exhibit it at the Museum of Memory dedicated to victims of the rightist military regime that convulsed the country from 1976 until 1983.
Flight records and other documentation show that a military crew took the aircraft up on the night of December 14, 1977.
Among those aboard, bound and drugged, were three members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that protested the disappearance of their children by the military, two French nuns and seven other people.
All were shoved out the door of the aircraft into Atlantic waters.
"The plane is something dark for us, but having found and identified it, we cannot allow it to continue flying," Mabel Careaga, one of the promoters of the repatriation of the aircraft that belonged to the Naval Prefecture, told AFP.
Careaga is the daughter of Esther Ballestrino, who was thrown into the ocean from the plane, along with the other founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Azucena Villaflor and Maria Ponce.
"It is too horrifying to imagine my mother there," says Careaga, who together with Cecilia de Vicenti, 62, Villaflor's daughter, hopes the aircraft will be exhibited on the grounds of the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, the site of a clandestine death camp where some 5,000 prisoners were held and which today is the Museum of Memory.
The initiative has the support of the government but some human rights organizations object, saying it's too gruesome.
"The airplane is part of the story, which is painful, but it has to be told as it was," De Vicenti said.
All the victims of that flight were singled out by a former sailor, Alfredo Astiz, who infiltrated the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. He's now serving life in prison.
- 'An appalling thing' -
A survivor of the Navy Mechanics School, journalist Miriam Lewin, helped launch the campaign to comb military flight records to reveal the history of the "death flights."
The premise, she said, was "if there were 'death flights,' there had to be airplanes."
The group located six aircraft mentioned by former navy officer Adolfo Scilingo, the first to admit having participated in the "death flights." In 2005, Scilingo was convicted in Spain for crimes against humanity and is serving a 30-year jail term.
Three of the aircraft were in Argentina but beyond salvage.
"Of the other three, the most accessible was in Miami. Another paradoxically was in the hands of the British armed forces and the last was in Luxembourg," Lewin said.
The Florida plane was the Skyvan PA-51 that operated that fateful December 14, 1977, flight. In 2007, it was used to transport mail between Fort Lauderdale and the Bahamas.
Commercial pilot and film director Enrique Pineyro studied the flight logs and found 10 to 15 suspicious entries. He took the records to prosecutors.
"The aircraft is... six, seven meters (20 to 23 feet) long. There, they piled up all the bodies half anesthetized with pentothal," Pineyro told AFP.
"It is an appalling thing. When you look at that box, that plane, you say: 'My God, what this must have been like.'"
Some 30,000 people disappeared during the Argentine military's "dirty war" against leftist subversion. The Skyvan aircraft made some 200 unexplained night-time flights between 1976 and 1978, according to Naval Prefecture records.
Military officials sought to obliterate all trace of those taken on the flights.
But that December 1977 night, strong winds blew the bodies of five of the victims to the shoreline.
Forensic specialists determined they had suffered fractures corresponding to falls from a great height. The bodies were buried in a common grave south of Buenos Aires but exhumed and positively identified in 2005.
© Agence France-Presse
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