U.S. grounds aerial drug watch over Peru

April 28, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The United States suspended drug-surveillance flights over Peru yesterday after an attack by Peruvian fighter planes on a U.S. aircraft Friday resulted in one lost crewman and the wounding of four others.

The suspension came as the preliminary results of a U.S. investigation disclosed that the pilot of the unarmed U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft had tried to radio the Peruvians before the shooting but received no response.

Before the firing, the Peruvian fighters flew alongside the clearly marked U.S. aircraft and tipped their wings in a gesture to follow, U.S. officials said. The U.S. plane attempted unsuccessfully to communicate and, since its mission had been approved by the peruvian government, continued on its course, they said.

The U.S. pilot, monitoring international radio frequencies, heard no warnings from the Peruvian jet before the shots were fired, the officials said. The Peruvians strafed the U.S. aircraft three times.

The U.S. account contradicted a statement Saturday by Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who said the plane bore no identification marks.

In a statement last night, the Pentagon emphasized that the C-130 was in international airspace when attacked. "While Peru claims overeignty over territorial sea and airspace out to 200 nautical miles from its coast, these claims contravene internationmal law, which does not recognize claims beyond a 12-nautical-mile limit," said Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Army Major Brian Whitman.

The incident raised new questions on Capitol Hill yesterday about continued U.S.-Peruvian cooperation in the drug war.

President Bush, asked about the incident, said, "There's still some uncertainty as to exactly what happened. The plane was marked, it was clearly on a predictable course, and so I, we still don't know all the answers to it."

But he said President Fujimori "to his credit . . . did the right thing in expressing regrets and apologies."

Officials said the incident occurred at 5:01 p.m. Peruvian time, which would be broad daylight, 60 miles off the Peruvian coast over thePacific, which the U.S. considers international waters. There was clear visibility at the time, they said.

The pursuit by two Soviet-made Su-22 fighters marked the second Peruvian interception that day of the C-130, a four-engine, propeller-driven cargo plane used to monitor drug-trafficker flights.

The first Peruvian interception, by Brazilian-made Tucano fighters, occurred at the coca-rich Upper Huallaga Valley, where the C-130 was conducting an anti-drug mission that U.S. officials said had been approved by U.S. and Peruvian authorities.

In such missions, U.S. planes pass information on trafficker movements to Peruvians to follow up.

After this interception, the C-130 radioed the U.S. Southern Command and asked that the Peruvians be informed of its approved drug mission. Unsuccessful in getting through to the Peruvian Air Force, the C-130 ended its mission, which was nearing completion.

Eighty minutes after reaching international air space and nearing Ecuador, the C-130 was approached by the two Su-22s, U.S. officials said. After the U.S. plane was hit, a crewman was sucked through a bullet-shattered window. The crewman, Master Sgt. Joseph C. Beard, is presumed dead.

The plane was escorted by the Peruvians to El Pato airfield in Peru where the wounded crewmembers were hospitalized.

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