BOGOTA, Colombia - Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced yesterday that President Bush has approved the resumption of an American-supported program in which Colombian fighter pilots can force or shoot down airplanes suspected of ferrying drugs.
The program, called Airbridge Denial and a key component in Washington's war on drugs in South America since 1995, was suspended here and in Peru after a Peruvian fighter shot down a private plane in 2001 that was carrying American missionaries.
Now, after more than two years of preparations to install safeguards to prevent another mistaken downing, the United States and Colombia will work together to identify drug planes and force them down, American officials said. A much more limited program will be implemented in Peru, officials said.
Rumsfeld, traveling with reporters on a one-day trip to Colombia, said, "There are plenty of ways that illegal trade can move - land, sea or air - and if you're not attentive to the air, it becomes a preferred method" of the traffickers.
The White House issued a statement saying Bush had authorized the resumption of the program after he determined that Colombia "had put in place appropriate measures to protect against loss of innocent life."
Under the drug interception program, American and Colombian radar coordinates that identify suspected drug flights would be passed along to Colombian crews flying Cessna Citation surveillance aircraft. The surveillance plane would then direct Colombian air force A-37 Dragon Fly fighters to home in.
Arinc Inc., a Maryland-based aviation company that has trained Colombian pilots and technicians, would have at least one bilingual observer, most likely an American, on each surveillance flight.
After identifying a suspected drug plane, authorities would have to make radio or visual contact and try to force the pilot to land. If the pilot disobeys, warning shots could be fired. As a last resort, U.S. officials say, a plane can be shot down.
Human Rights Watch officials, who have met with American and Colombian officials to raise concerns, say the program violates American law enforcement use-of-force principles.
"To shoot civilian planes in cases that are not in self-defense or in cases where you're not in a war, fighting combatants, is the equivalent to an extrajudicial execution, regardless of the cargo," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.