STATE Department inquiry finds U.S., Peru share blame in shooting down of private airplane

Tuesday, July 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A State Department-led inquiry has found that the mistaken downing of a civilian plane carrying U.S. missionaries in Peru resulted from a series of errors by the Peruvians, Americans and the missionaries' pilot, two officials told The Associated Press Tuesday.

The report does not assign direct blame for the April 20 downing that happened after the missionary plane was initially mistaken for a drug flight by a CIA-operated surveillance plane and fired on by a Peruvian military jet.

A Baptist missionary, Veronica Bowers, and her 7-month-old daughter were killed and pilot Kevin Donaldson was seriously wounded when the plane was shot down.

A U.S.-Peruvian investigating team led by Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers has been examining the cause of the accident. State Department officials briefed members of Congress privately Monday on its findings. Family members were being notified separately.

The team's report has not been released, but some of its findings were reported in Tuesday's Washington Post, which cited unnamed sources.

Two officials familiar with the report discussed it with the AP. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.

A U.S. official said among the findings was that the missionary's plane had not followed a proper flight plan and the pilot was not monitoring the proper radio frequencies that would have allowed the Peruvian Air Force to contact it. The missionaries have repeatedly said they did nothing wrong.

The official said the report also found that the Peruvians failed to follow proper procedures to avoid an accidental downing and that it disregarded warnings from the crew of the CIA-plane not to fire on the missionaries' plane.

``The U.S. crew was pretty vociferous in expressing their reservations and the Peruvians blew past those reservations and the results were tragic,'' said the official.

But a congressional official said the report found U.S. and Peruvian officials shared responsibility _ that both had become lax and complacent about following safeguards in place since 1994 to avoid an accidental downing.

U.S. drug surveillance flights in Colombia and Peru have been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

Top department officials traveling with Secretary of State Colin Powell said they were unfamiliar with contents of the report.

Peruvian officials also declined to comment on the report. A member of the joint investigative team, Abraham Ramirez, said the two Peruvian pilots from the A-37 fighter jet that shot down the missionary's Cessna have been grounded until resolution of the case.

They were being detained on an air force base in Piura, on Peru's northern Pacific coast, as part of a judicial military process, but there is no presumption of criminal wrongdoing, said Ramirez, an aerospace consultant to Peru's air force.

``They are simply under investigation to see how things came to pass,'' Ramirez told the AP. ``The report will also serve to see in the judicial case if they had committed some crime. Apparently, they did not. But in any case, it is being investigated.''

The missionaries group, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, has not seen the report and cannot comment on it, said its attorney, Don Davis. But Davis said that Donaldson, the pilot, did nothing wrong.

``We agree with the statement that the U.S. shares fault with Peru and have maintained all along that our pilot did not contribute in any way to the incident,'' he said.