WASHINGTON — In yesterday's editions of The Sun, a photograph of a helicopter flown by three U.S. military advisers who were killed in El Salvador Wednesday depicted seriously damaged wreckage that appeared to contradict official U.S. statements that the aircraft had made a "controlled" landing after being hit by rebel gunfire.
According to press accounts, witnesses said the rebels took the victims out of the aircraft and then burned it.
The Pentagon also said the bodies later were found outside the helicopter, taken to a military hospital in San Salvador and turned over to U.S. authorities.
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration said yesterday that three U.S. military advisers were shot in the head and killed after their Army helicopter was attacked by Salvadoran rebels and forced to land in eastern El Salvador.
FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION
Although spokesmen for the State Department and Pentagon stopped short of making any direct accusations, other U.S. sources said that the three servicemen managed to land their U.S. Army UH-1H Huey aircraft Wednesday after taking on small-arms fire and that they then were killed by rebels.
"The helicopter landed in a controlled fashion," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "Nevertheless, all three U.S. servicemen had apparent gunshot wounds to the head, and two of them had no other apparent wounds."
The Pentagon withheld the names of the victims while it notified their families. The advisers, among the fewer than 55 military training officials permitted in El Salvador by congressional action, were assigned to the Panama-based 4th Battalion of the 228th Aviation Regiment, the Pentagon said.
Mr. Boucher said Salvadoran rebels would be held responsible for the deaths but added, "I can't tell you exactly who shot them, when, where and how, but, you know, they have claimed responsibility for the whole incident."
One U.S. official said two of the Americans escaped from the helicopter after landing but were shot afterward. The third man, apparently injured, remained in the aircraft and was shot there, the official said.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said the bodies were not found in the helicopter, contrary to a rebel claim that the Americans had been found dead inside the aircraft.
Mr. Williams, disputing other rebel claims, said the helicopter "was not flying over a contested or hostile area at the time that it was shot down" at 2:30 p.m. local time Wednesday. He added that it had "no role in supporting the Salvadoran armed forces," explaining that the Americans were on a "routine mission" to support other U.S. military personnel in the country.
He said there was no evidence that the servicemen had fired the helicopter's M-60 machine gun or their own weapons.
The helicopter, en route to its base in Honduras, drew fire while flying on a route along the Pan American Highway, which is not a conflict zone, U.S. officials said. They added that it was flying only about 50 feet above the ground, to avoid the possibility of being shot down by rebels armed with SA-14 anti-aircraft missiles.
A U.S. military forensic team left Miami yesterday for El Salvador, where it will examine the victims, officials said. The bodies were recovered and taken to a San Salvador hospital.
The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebel organization claimed a few hours after Wednesday's incident that its forces shot down a military helicopter near the village of Lolotique, 75 miles east of San Salvador, and it said they discovered later that its crew members were Americans.
"They were in a war zone, our units did not distinguish [if] it was a warplane overflying a war zone, and in this context the helicopter was brought down," the clandestine rebel Radio Venceremos said. "Let this serve U.S. advisers to reflect on flying over war zones."
The Bush administration has been considering sending $42.5 million to the government of President Alfredo Cristiani as a result of a six-week rebel offensive that has killed more than 600 people.
Mr. Boucher said the shooting incident "certainly will be taken into consideration" when the administration gives Congress its report soon about whether to release the aid.