Officials: Pilot on suspect plane did not behave like drug courier
WASHINGTON (AP) – An American missionary plane shot down over Peru did not appear to be on a drug trafficking mission because it flew deep into that country’s airspace instead of sticking close to the border area and took no other actions normally associated with drug flights, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The CIA-sponsored plane that monitored the missionary aircraft decided to notify the Peruvian Air Force about the single-engine Cessna despite the crew’s belief that it probably was unrelated to drug smuggling.
Within minutes, a Peruvian fighter plane opened fire on the Cessna, killing Veronica ”Roni” Bowers, an American missionary, and her 7-month-old daughter.
The crew aboard the surveillance plane was surprised when the Peruvian fighter attacked the suspect plane without a thorough check to identify it, officials said. Only about four minutes elapsed between the time of notification and the attack on the plane, the officials said.
The officials, asking not to be identified, said there were a number of reasons for believing that the flight was not on a drug mission. The plane was flying straight instead of taking evasive maneuvers and was not flying low to the ground, as drug courier pilots often do, the officials said.
Despite the exculpatory information, the surveillance crew decided to alert the Peruvian Air Force about the presence of the suspect plane because it lacked proof as to its true identity, the officials said.
Established procedures call for Peruvian fighters that approach suspect planes to use hand signals and send radio messages to make contact. One official said the surveillance plane expected the Peruvian interceptor to make a much more comprehensive check than it did before opening fire.
As U.S. officials see it, the incident was a departure from what they regard as a highly professional performance by the Peruvians in the anti-drug program.
Bowers’ husband, Jim, and their 6-year-old son, Cory, survived, as did pilot Kevin Donaldson, who was wounded and has undergone surgery on both legs.
It was not immediately clear if a Peruvian communications liaison aboard the U.S. plane was aware of the information which suggested that the flight involved an innocent aircraft.
The liaison was responsible for relaying information to the Peruvian air force about planes spotted by the CIA crew.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said an audiotape of the sequence of events is being reviewed by the CIA. He said transcribing the tape is difficult because of several people speaking Spanish and English over the loud noise of the airplane.
Communications between the Peruvians and the Americans on the surveillance flight were not a problem because, officials said, the Peruvian was an English speaker.
As a result of the incident, the U.S. airborne surveillance cooperation with Peru has been suspended. A U.S. team is expected to fly to Lima in the coming days to discuss ways of ensuring that Friday’s tragedy won’t be repeated. According to officials, the suspension is expected to be lifted in a few weeks.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said a similar program of cooperation with Colombia also has been suspended. The programs with Peru and Colombia have been in effect for more than a decade, although there was a brief suspension in 1994 because of unresolved legal issues.
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