U.S. role ‘advisory’ in plane shootdown
WASHINGTON (AP) – A Peruvian jet shot down a plane carrying American missionaries just one hour after being notified by a CIA-operated surveillance plane that it might be a flight ferrying illegal drugs, a U.S. intelligence official said Sunday.
The American members of the crew of the U.S. surveillance plane, which included a military officer from Peru, sought to slow down the process that led to the deaths of two Americans on Friday, said this official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
After almost two days of conflicting information, the United States sought Sunday to portray its drug surveillance role as advisory in nature.
The U.S. aircraft is owned by the Defense Department but was operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, a second U.S. official said. This official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said it appeared that the Peruvian authorities moved too quickly to attack the plane carrying the American missionaries. As a result, all such surveillance flights have been suspended, he said.
In Quebec for a hemispheric summit that included Peru, President Bush pledged to find out what went wrong, but said the role of the U.S. surveillance plane was ”simply to pass on information” about aircraft suspected of carrying drugs.
”Our government is involved with helping, and a variety of agencies are involved with helping, our friends in South America identify airplanes that might be carrying illegal drugs,” Bush said at a news conference closing out the Summit of the Americas. ”These operations have been going on for quite a while.”
Specifically, the American role is to spot planes’ tail numbers and identify aircraft that fail to file flight plans, Bush said.
The surveillance flights, he said, have been suspended ”until we get to the bottom of the situation, to fully understand all the facts, to understand what went wrong in this terrible tragedy.”
The U.S. official said the crew of the plane included a civilian pilot, co-pilot and systems operator who work under contract for the CIA. Also on board was a Peruvian air force officer who was responsible for coordinating with Peruvian authorities on the ground.
The U.S. intelligence official said the three CIA employees aboard the Cessna Citation jet were not involved in the decision to shoot down the plane carrying American missionaries. This official said the CIA employees believed the Peruvian air force officer, once he was unable to contact the other plane’s pilot on three different radio frequencies, moved too quickly through the established procedures for determining what action to take against the suspect plane.
The official offered the following description of the incident: The CIA plane notified its base at 9:43 a.m. local time Friday of the radar sighting of an aircraft that crossed three to four miles into Brazil. A second sighting was called in 12 minutes later as the unidentified plane crossed back into Peruvian air space.
The CIA crew asked the Peruvian officer to determine whether the aircraft was on an approved flight plan. The Peruvian officer could not locate a flight plan for a plane in that area.
The Peruvian government said the plane entered Peruvian air space from Brazil without filing a flight plan and that it was fired on after the pilot failed to respond to ”international procedures of identification and interception.”
Mario Justo, chief of the airport in Iquitos, the destination, said the plane did not have a flight plan when it set out from Islandia, next to Brazil’s border, Friday morning. But one was established when the pilot made radio contact with the airport control tower in Iquitos, he said.
The Peruvian air force officer then decided to launch an interceptor aircraft to determine the airplane’s identity and intentions. The U.S. official said it was unclear whether warning shots were fired by the interceptor aircraft – a Peruvian A-37 – or whether the missionary aircraft saw them.
At approximately 10:43 a.m., ”despite serious concerns raised by the U.S. crew,” a shootdown was authorized by Peruvian air force authorities, the official said. The U.S. crew was concerned the nature of the suspect plane hadn’t been determined, the official said.
The Peruvian officer aboard the CIA plane requested permission from his superiors on the ground to authorize the Peruvian interceptor jet to fire upon the suspect aircraft in order to disable it, the U.S. official said.
At this point ”the U.S. crew voiced objections” and asked that the interceptor jet’s pilot fly alongside the suspect aircraft and get its tail number. The number was obtained but apparently was not called back to the Peruvian air force operations center on the ground before the shootdown was authorized at 10:43 a.m., the official said.
Justo, the chief of the airport in Iquitos, said that during radio contact with the missionary plane at 10:48 a.m. – just five minutes after the shootdown was authorized – the pilot of the missionary plane reported the presence of a military plane.
”He added in his report that there had been a military plane, but that he did not know what it wanted,” Justo said.
Missionary Veronica ”Roni” Bowers, 35, and her 7-month-old adopted daughter, Charity, were both killed and pilot Kevin Donaldson was wounded in the downing.
Also on board and unhurt were Bowers’ husband, Jim Bowers, 37, and their 6-year-old son Cory.
”Our hearts go out to the families who have been affected,” Bush said. ”I want everybody in my country to understand that we weep for the families whose lives have been affected.”
The CIA has been involved in such surveillance flights over Peru since 1995 under authority provided in a law passed in 1994. The law permits U.S. government employees to assist foreign nations in interdicting aircraft when there is reasonable suspicion of illicit drug trade.
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