Peru to free pilots who shot down missionaries

LIMA, Peru - A civilian court has ordered the release of two air force pilots who were jailed after they mistakenly shot down a small plane in 2001, killing an American missionary and her infant child, their lawyer said Monday.

Defense lawyer Jorge Power said his clients' rights to be charged within nine months of incarceration had been violated. They had been in prison for more than 10 months.

Peruvian Air Force Maj. Jose Antonio Redhead and Lt. Richard Hercilla should be released this week, Power said. He said the court made its decision Thursday.

The release order followed a successful appeal to the Constitutional Tribunal, Peru's highest court for constitutional matters, Power said.

Redhead and Hercilla piloted a fighter plane that shot down a Cessna float plane, instantly killing American missionary Veronica Bowers, 35, and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, in a botched drug interdiction mission in April 2001.

Power said the pilots still face charges including disobedience and negligence, but did not know when they would go to trial.

Pilot Kevin Donaldson, who sustained serious leg wounds, crash-landed the plane on the Amazon River. Bowers' husband, Jim Bowers, and the couple's son, Cory, escaped serious injury.

The Peruvian plane downed the Cessna after a CIA-operated surveillance flight identified it as a possible drug courier.

A joint U.S.-Peru report found that procedural errors, language problems and an overloaded communications system all contributed to the accident.

The report said neither nation followed procedures developed by the two governments in 1994 to avoid such incidents.

Peru's Defense Minister Aurelio Loret de Mola said earlier this month that drug interdiction flights will resume in November.