PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Poor Spanish language skills among Americans aboard a CIA drug surveillance aircraft may have played a role in the Peruvian Air Force's downing of a U.S. missionary plane on April 20, a missionary group official said on Wednesday.
The CIA surveillance plane, carrying three American crew members and a Peruvian liaison officer, suspected the missionary plane of being a drug smuggler, alerted the Peruvian military, and looked on as an Air Force jet fired on the single-engine Cessna 4,000 feet above the Amazon jungle.
U.S. officials say the Americans, all hired from an outside contractor, told the Peruvian officer they doubted the plane was a drug runner and tried to get him to call off the attack, which claimed the lives of a Baptist missionary and her infant daughter.
But there may have been a language problem.
"The problem on board was, so I understand, that the Americans did not speak Spanish well, nor did the one Peruvian speak English well," Hank Scheltema, the missionary group's aviation director, told Reuters in an interview.
"So there was a breakdown in communications," he said.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment, citing a federal investigation into the incident that led President Bush to suspend American drug interdiction flights last month.
But a U.S. government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that none of the Americans was fluent in Spanish and said he could not deny that a language barrier may have existed on board the surveillance flight.
"Did they have language capabilities? Yes. Were they fluent? No," the official said.
Peruvian Air Force officials were not immediately available for comment.
The attack killed 35-year-old Baptist missionary Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter Charity, seriously wounded pilot Kevin Donaldson, 42, and sent their plane crashing into the Amazon River. Bowers' husband, Jim, and 6-year-old son, Cory, escaped uninjured.
All five belonged to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism).
U.S. officials have blamed Peru for acting too quickly. Peruvian officials staunchly maintain that they followed international procedures to the letter.
"I think it should be part of any recommendation to come from this, that there should be sufficient language ability to prevent confusion," said Don Davis, the missionary group's lawyer. "Our main concern is that this not happen again."
ABC News said it will broadcast an interview with Jim Bowers on Thursday in which he says he believes the Peruvian military jet did not fire the required warning shots before attacking.
The network's program "PrimeTime Thursday" also quotes one of the American crew members as expressing doubts about whether the missionary plane was a drug runner just before the military aircraft opened fire. The American then shouted to the Peruvian liaison officer: "Tell him to terminate, don't shoot! Tell him to terminate! No mas!"