U.S. unmanned reconnaissance aircraft lost over southern Iraq, possibly shot down
WASHINGTON (AP) – A U.S. Air Force unmanned reconnaissance aircraft failed to return from a mission over southern Iraq and may have been shot down by Iraqi air defense forces, a U.S. official said Monday.
In a brief statement from U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., a spokesman, Col. Rick Thomas, said it was not yet clear why the Predator aircraft was missing.
”The aircraft may have crashed or been shot down,” Thomas said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Lapan, said it was the first U.S. aircraft of any kind lost in Iraq in the 10 years since U.S. and British planes began patrolling ”no-fly” zones, with the exception of a ”friendly-fire” incident in 1994. In that incident, two American F-15 fighter jets mistakenly shot down two U.S. Army helicopters over northern Iraq, killing 15 Americans, five Iraqi Kurds, three Turks, two Britons and a Frenchman.
The patrols began in northern Iraq in 1991 shortly after the Gulf War and in the south a year later.
Also on Monday, U.S. planes attacked a SA-3 surface-to-air missile site in northern Iraq, a U.S. official said. The U.S. European Command, which is responsible for U.S. operations in northern Iraq, said in a brief statement that U.S. planes retaliated when Iraqi forces fired anti-aircraft artillery from sites north of Mosul.
American and British aircraft regularly patrol ”no-fly” zones over northern and southern Iraq to protect minority Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north from attacks by government forces. The southern patrols also provide early warning of potential Iraqi military moves toward the Kuwaiti border.
Thomas said there is no plan to attempt to recover the low-speed aircraft, which other officials said was lost near the southern city of Basra.
”No sensitive technology will be compromised by not recovering the aircraft,” Thomas said.
The plane, whose wing span is less than 50 feet, flies at a maximum speed of 140 miles per hour at altitudes up to 25,000 feet. It was reported missing at 2 a.m. EDT., Thomas said. It is an easier target for Iraqi air defenses than manned aircraft like the much more agile and speedier F-16 fighter, which can reach twice the speed of sound. Also, the Predator loiters at lower altitudes and has no armaments aboard to protect itself.
One U.S. official said operators of the Predator lost communications and radar contact with the aircraft and were not immediately sure why.
The first word came from Baghdad.
”Iraqi air defenses have shot an American reconnaissance plane coming from Kuwaiti territory,” the official Iraqi News Agency quoted an unidentified military spokesman as saying.
The plane, according to the news agency, contained ”high-tech equipment” and was shot down near Basra, 340 miles south of Baghdad.
The Iraqi news agency did not further specify the type of plane or say anything about any pilots aboard. There were no pictures immediately on Iraqi television.
The United States has lost Predator reconnaissance planes to hostile fire before, mainly in the Balkans, but rarely if ever over Iraq.
Iraq has been stepping up its efforts to shoot down the U.S. and British aircraft that patrol ”no-fly” zones over southern and northern Iraq. It has come closer in recent weeks, prompting occasional retaliatory U.S. and British attacks on air defense radars and communications sites.
In July, Iraq fired a missile at a U.S. Air Force U-2 surveillance plane flying at high altitudes over Iraq. The spy plane was not hit but the missile exploded close enough to be felt by the crew.
Several days earlier the crew of a Navy E2-C radar plane flying over Kuwait reported seeing the plume of an Iraqi surface-to-air missile fired in its direction.
Over the last three years, Iraq has occasionally claimed it had hit a U.S. or British plane, but Monday’s is the first downing that has been confirmed.
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