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Peruvian Official Counters U.S. Allegations in Downing of Plane

By Scott Wilson

Countering U.S. suggestions of blame, a Peruvian official declared Monday that a Peruvian pilot and his control officers followed agreed procedure “to the letter” in shooting down a private plane carrying American missionaries.

The contention, from an officer with access to the air force command, represented the beginning of a defense against suggestions by U.S. officials that Peruvians acted hastily and without proper notification Friday morning in shooting down the plane, killing a woman and her 7-month-old daughter.

“There were definitely passes made, more than one,” the air force officer said, referring to attempts the Peruvian A-37 warplane made to contact the missionaries’ smaller Cessna 185 visually. “The flight crew followed all international rules to the letter, but there are still various issues that must be investigated to determine what happened.”

The officer’s comments followed pointed words Monday from the Bush administration on what went wrong in the process of engagement, which began with notification from a CIA-run surveillance plane and ended in the downing of the missionary aircraft on the Amazon River more than 600 miles northeast of Lima.

While acknowledging that the CIA-run aircraft pointed out the missionary plane as a possible drug-trafficking flight, the U.S. government has acted quickly to place the blame on the Peruvian military, saying the pilot and his control officers skipped intermediary steps that might have properly identified the aircraft.

The pontoon plane was carrying five Americans, including two children, when it was intercepted over the Amazon on a clear morning. According to survivor accounts, the Peruvian jet fired on the plane without warning the pilot by radio or making its presence known visually. Veronica “Roni” Bowers, 35, and her baby, Charity, were killed by gunfire from the Peruvian jet.

Since the incident, U.S. officials have suspended surveillance flights over the busy drug-smuggling corridor, which for years have provided information to Peruvian interceptors. The exchange Monday suggested that a debate over the future of such intelligence assistance may be in the offing.

Peruvian officials did not present any evidence to refute U.S. allegations that the pilot skipped intermediate steps before firing on the plane. Nor did they offer evidence to refute the U.S. assertion that the surveillance plane crew issued warnings to delay any attack pending identification of the missionaries’ aircraft.

The air force official here said military investigators are trying to determine why the A-37 and the floatplane were unable to communicate in the moments proceeding the shooting. The missionary pilot, Kevin Donaldson, has a decade of experience flying over Peru’s eastern jungles and has told investigators he followed all procedures.