Pubdate: Sat, 16 Mar 2002
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Austin American-Statesman
Author: Tim Johnson, Knight Ridder Newspapers
Bookmark: (Peruvian Aircraft Shooting)


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is "pretty close" to resuming a suspended 
program to shoot down suspected drug planes in the Amazon, White House drug 
czar John Walters says.

Walters told Knight Ridder that U.S. officials may want to renew the 
program first in Colombia, then later in Peru, where a tragic accidental 
shoot-down over the Amazon River on April 20 killed a U.S. missionary and 
her infant daughter.

That incident forced the suspension of the program and led to at least two 
official U.S. investigations and a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

Peru is one of the nations President Bush will visit during a Latin 
American tour March 21-24, and expectations are high in Lima of imminent 
renewal of the U.S.-designed strategy begun in 1994 to shoot down aircraft 
suspected of carrying coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine.

"We have been informed by the administration that this matter is in a very 
advanced state of consideration," Peru's ambassador to Washington, Allan 
Wagner, said Friday. "We hope that this will be accomplished by the time 
President Bush is in Lima."

Coca crops are expanding in both Peru and Colombia, and some conservative 
U.S. legislators are pressing the White House to take more aggressive action.

Safeguards built into the U.S.-sponsored shoot-down program eroded with 
time, making an accident almost inevitable, Senate Intelligence Committee 
investigators found in October. The panel's report called for a "dramatic 
overhaul" and said the program was marred by language barriers, inadequate 
radio systems and failure to alert suspicious pilots that they were about 
to be shot out of the sky.

It also demanded that the CIA not be involved in future drug plane 

On the morning of April 20, a CIA-operated surveillance plane helped a 
Peruvian warplane track what they suspected was a drug-laden floatplane 
over the Amazon River. The warplane shot the aircraft out of the sky, later 
discovering it belonged to the Association of Baptists for World 
Evangelism, a U.S. missionary group.

Killed in the accident were Veronica Bowers, 35, and her infant daughter, 
Charity. Her husband, James, and their son, Cory, were unhurt. The pilot, 
Kevin Donaldson, was shot in both legs, but miraculously brought the plane 
down to a river landing.

The survivors and the Baptist group are seeking $35 million in compensation 
from the U.S. government for the accident.

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said U.S. officials are eager to 
establish more rigorous procedures and renew the shoot-down program.

Powell said he did not know whether any announcement would be made during 
Bush's trip to Peru this month.

Before renewing the program, the Bush administration must certify to 
Congress 30 days in advance that new safeguards are in place to prevent 
loss of innocent life.

The legislator who sponsored that requirement, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R- 
Mich., said he is skeptical such safeguards can be designed.

"I've got real concerns about this policy," Hoekstra said. "I'm very 
hesitant to going back to a shoot-down policy. There's a very small margin 
for error. If you're shot down, you're going to die."

Before the program resumes, Walters said, officials will correct problems 
that led to the mistaken shoot-down in April. All U.S. personnel will speak 
Spanish, and radio communication will be refined to avoid 
misunderstandings, he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom