Americans Shot Down Over Peru

BUENOS AIRES, April 20 -- A Peruvian air force jet on a counter-narcotics mission mistakenly shot down a small private plane carrying American missionaries through Peru's Amazon region this morning, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Lima said.

Lima's Radioprogramas radio station and sources close to the incident reported that two people were killed. Veronica Bowers was holding her 7-month-old daughter on her lap when a bullet struck her in the back, killing both her and the child. In the ensuing crash in the jungle town of Pebas, about 700 miles northeast of Lima, the pilot and two other passengers apparently survived.

"After carrying out international identification and interception procedure . . . which the pilot ignored . . . the Peruvian Air Force plane opened fire as a last resort," the Defense Ministry said in a communique.

Ben Ziff, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Lima, said: "We deeply regret this tragedy and are in the process of determining the extent of loss of life and injury to the passengers and crew. U.S. Embassy personnel are traveling to the scene to provide all the assistance we can."

There were conflicting accounts of exactly how the accident occurred. Mario Justo, chief of the Iquitos airport, told the Associated Press that a single-engine plane belonging to the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism had crashed en route to Iquitos, where he said it was scheduled to arrive at 11:20 a.m.

But Peruvian media reports and sources familiar with the crash said the plane appeared to be headed toward Colombia and entered Peruvian airspace from neighboring Brazil. The plane was flying in an area where low-flying drug planes are common and had reportedly not registered a flight plan. Just before 11 a.m., a Peruvian air force counter-narcotics jet intercepted it and attempted contact, according to local media.

A source familiar with the situation said the Peruvian air force pilot tried repeatedly to raise the private plane on radio, then attempted to signal the plane to land by tipping its wings and finally by rapidly flying in front of it. After failing to provoke the plane to move into a landing position, the Peruvian pilot apparently fired on the plane.

The incident was the second time in a decade that the Peruvian air force has mistaken aircraft carrying U.S. citizens for a plane carrying drugs. In April 1992, one U.S. airman was killed and others injured when the Peruvians shot at an off-course U.S. Air Force transport mistaken for a drug plane.

The region where the incident occurred today is a favorite transit route for drug traffickers, and Peru monitors the area with the assistance of U.S. military personnel using radar to spot drug planes.

The operation involves U.S. military funding, training and technical support personnel who work side by side with Peruvian military officials at high-tech radar monitoring posts in sparsely populated regions of the Amazon. However, the U.S. Embassy in Lima could not confirm whether U.S. military officials were involved in tracking and spotting the missionaries' plane.

Between 1994 and 1997, Peru shot down about 25 suspected drug planes en route from camps in the Amazon region to Colombian cocaine refineries.

The actions were the result of former president Alberto Fujimori's tough anti-narcotics policies aimed at reducing trafficking in coca, the raw material used to make cocaine.

Peru's military has been in upheaval over the past several months as top ranking officers have been purged after Fujimori left the country amid corruption charges last November. This evening, high ranking civilian politicians called for a detailed explanation from the military on the shoot down.

"Obviously, the question that needs to be answered here is why the military took such a drastic decision," Carlos Ferrero, the president of the Peruvian Congress, said in a telephone interview. "We can't request an investigation until we have all the facts, but I think the response was surprising. If you're going to shoot at a plane . . . you better have good reason."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company