U.S., Saudis cite each other for false defection report

January 09, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent Richard H. P. Sia of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi and U.S. officials politely blamed each other yesterday in trying to explain the defection of six Iraqi helicopter crews that seems not to have taken place.

Reports of Monday's defection, accompanied by colorful details, were "unfounded in form and content," according to Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdul Aziz, who blamed the incident on the Americans.

U.S. military officials in Dhahran said that the initial U.S. reports were based on information provided by Saudi Arabia, but they had no explanation why the information apparently was wrong. "We just honestly don't have any information," a spokesman for the U.S. forces said.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Pete Williams said U.S. officials never had independent confirmation of the initial report when it was released but were still trying to check it out. An aide, Lt. Col. Stuart Wagner, acknowledged that the helicopters, if they existed, had not yet been seen by U.S. officials.

Mr. Williams was one of several U.S. sources in Washington who gave reporters an account of the Iraqi defections Monday. He and others, including military officers, said they relied strictly on information conveyed by U.S. Central Command headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi press agency, meanwhile, said that reports of defectors were wrong from the start. It said Prince Sultan "categorically denied" any such defection.

The Pentagon's apparent loss in credibility was Iraq's gain. Iraq's minister of information, Latif Jassim, rejected the reports on Monday night as "wishful thinking."

There is no question that at least for a time Saudi and U.S. forces told each other the defections were real. U.S. reporters at a Saudi air force base were told by a sentry about 11:40 p.m. Monday that a military communications center was reporting there were "four incoming Iraqi aircraft," a report later repeated by a U.S. military spokesman there.

The sentry repeated the information and added that fighter planes were escorting the Iraqis through Saudi airspace. At 12:20 a.m. yesterday, a U.S. Navy officer told the reporters that Iraqi helicopters had landed about 20 miles from the base.

A few hours later in Washington, Mr. Williams announced that four Iraqi helicopters had landed at a Saudi air base at Ras al-Khafji, about 10 miles south of the border with Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. Two other helicopters were said to have landed in the desert, for a total of six aircraft and an unspecified number of crew members.

Other Pentagon sources released other details -- such as the specific model of Soviet-made helicopters flown by the defectors and types of escort planes involved -- that suggested the U.S. military had independently confirmed the defections.

"These initial reports had a great deal of verisimilitude, so it's not like just something out of the blue," Mr. Williams said yesterday. "There were a lot of reports . . . about various kinds of activity in the theater of operation. There was also a report, a statement, an announcement, if you will, by Saudi officials that some helicopters landed in Saudi Arabia."

A senior U.S. military officer at the Pentagon said he learned of the report after the Cable News Network broke the story, which the officer said was based on an account from an unidentified "high-ranking Saudi civilian official." The officer said he called U.S. Central Command authorities for more information and they, in turn, checked only with Saudi sources before reporting back.

"I don't think it was deliberate misinformation," the senior U.S. officer said. "There were bits of pieces of something out there. With a deadline coming, I guess they got caught up in the fever of it all. Everyone was looking for something that might signal there won't be a war."

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