Pubdate: Sun, 22 Apr 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Author: Sebastian Rotella, Natalia Tarnawiecki, Special To The Times
Note: Times staff writer Rotella reported from Buenos Aires and special 
correspondent Tarnawiecki from Lima.


LIMA, Peru--U.S. and Peruvian investigators Saturday were trying to unravel 
the perplexing circumstances in which an American missionary and her infant 
daughter died when a Peruvian air force anti-drug plane shot down their 
Cessna--an incident that also involved a U.S. surveillance aircraft.

As part of an anti-drug program in which U.S. aircraft help interdict 
smuggling flights, an unarmed U.S. surveillance plane was providing support 
Friday morning when the Peruvian A-37B jet shot down a private seaplane 
carrying five people, U.S. Embassy officials here revealed Saturday.

Baptist missionary Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, 
died after being hit by gunfire. Their pilot was wounded in the legs and 
was in stable condition Saturday after being transferred from a jungle 
clinic to a hospital in the northern city of Iquitos.

"A U.S. government tracking aircraft was in the area in support of the 
Peruvian intercept mission," an embassy spokesman said. "As part of an 
agreement between the U.S. and Peru, U.S. radar provides tracking 
information on planes suspected of smuggling illegal drugs in the region to 
the Peruvian air force. U.S. government tracking aircraft . . . do not 
participate in any way in the shooting down of suspect planes."

The tragic and ironic elements of the case--an American mother and her baby 
blown out of the sky during a joint U.S.-Peruvian anti-drug operation--had 
U.S. investigators and consular officials scrambling Saturday. And the U.S. 
Embassy said further drug interdiction flights have been suspended, 
"pending a thorough investigation and review by Peruvian and U.S. officials 
of how this tragic incident took place."

But the involvement of the U.S. surveillance plane, which was reportedly 
close enough for the Cessna's pilot to see, underscored a fundamental 
question: What happened between the moment the anti-drug aircraft spotted 
the missionaries' plane and the shoot-down itself.

The Cessna 185 seaplane was spotted about 10 a.m., and the shoot-down 
occurred about 11:20 a.m., according to the Peruvian government and 
informed sources. Peruvian air force officials insist that the missionary 
pilot, Kevin Donaldson, ignored radio warnings and other internationally 
established procedures with which the Peruvian pilot tried to contact him.

U.S. officials gave no signs Saturday that they doubted the Peruvian 
version. Yet it is hard to understand why Donaldson, a veteran missionary 
who grew up in Peru, would not comply with a Peruvian air force pilot.

Donaldson was flying over a jungle area rife with airborne border 
smugglers. His seaplane fit the profile of smuggling aircraft, which use 
clandestine landing strips and rivers to fly coca paste into neighboring 
Colombia and Brazil. The aggressive shoot-down policy of Peru's air force, 
which has downed more than two dozen suspected drug flights since 1994, is 
well known.

The personnel on the U.S. surveillance plane could be an important source 
for answers because they probably saw and heard at least part of the 
interaction between the Peruvian pilot and the missionary pilot.

It is likely that the U.S. surveillance plane first identified the Cessna 
approaching from Brazilian airspace as a suspicious aircraft and alerted 
the Peruvian anti-drug plane, according to sources familiar with previous 
shoot-downs. Although U.S. officials would not comment on this case, they 
said that U.S. planes in the joint interdiction program use surveillance 
technology to pinpoint suspected smugglers for the Peruvian air force.

"U.S. government aircraft provide location data about aircraft flying in 
the region apparently without a flight plan," a U.S. Embassy spokesman 
said. "The U.S. aircraft hands off this data to the Peruvian air force. 
Peruvian aircraft conduct the identification and interception missions."

Acknowledging the gravity of the matter, President Bush took time out from 
the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City to say he planned to discuss the 
shoot-down with Peruvian Prime Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar.

"The United States is certainly upset by the fact that two citizens lost 
their lives," Bush said. "I will wait to see all the facts before I reach 
any conclusions about blame."

Facts were scarce Saturday because Peruvian government officials and the 
victims had little to say. Survivors James and Cory Bowers, the slain 
woman's husband and 7-year-old son, were in Iquitos along with the wounded 
pilot, who was expected to be flown to Lima, the capital, on Saturday 
night. The bodies of the mother and daughter were also expected to be flown 
to Lima and probably on to the United States.

Donaldson's wife, Bobbi, told Peruvian journalists Friday night that her 
husband had told her he saw a U.S. plane in the vicinity during the 
interception. She said the pilot said he had tried to communicate with his 
pursuer by radio and that he did not understand why the Peruvian anti-drug 
plane opened fire. But there were no further details to corroborate or 
refute that account Saturday.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials confirmed that, on the morning of the incident, 
the missionaries' plane had been en route to Iquitos from Leticia, a 
Colombian town on the border with Brazil. The Bowers family, who lived in 
the Iquitos area, made the trip to Colombia to obtain a permanent Peruvian 
visa for the infant girl, a procedure requiring her to leave and reenter 
the country.

The Amazon area where Peru, Brazil and Colombia converge is notorious for 
drug trafficking and guerrilla activity. But the Bowerses were apparently 
unfazed by the dangers: They had lived in Peru since 1994, traveling by 
houseboat as missionaries for the Assn. of Baptists for World Evangelism.

In a news release Saturday, the Pennsylvania-based religious group asserted 
that its seaplane followed "all regulations, such as a flight plan, 
remaining in Peruvian airspace and maintaining contact with the flight 
towers. The plane had recently been refurbished and was in top condition 
and was well marked."

Donaldson radioed the air traffic controllers in Iquitos just before 11 
a.m., according to the news release. It was not clear how that call fit 
into the sequence of events, as described by the Peruvian air force, 
preceding the shooting.

After Veronica Bowers, known as Roni, and her baby were killed by bullets 
that tore through the fuselage, Donaldson was able to land the plane on a 
river and get the survivors out, according to the news release.

"They were rescued by a Peruvian in a dugout canoe and were taken to the 
clinic in the town of Pebas," the press release said. "The Peruvian 
military, along with some U.S. personnel, evacuated Jim and Cory to 
Iquitos, along with the bodies of Roni and Charity."
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