A CIA-contracted American crew aboard a U.S. drug interdiction plane tried to stop Peruvian authorities from shooting at a plane that turned out to be carrying American missionaries, a U.S. intelligence official said on Sunday.
"The U.S. crew repeatedly expressed their concern that the nature of the aircraft had not been determined," the official told Reuters. "Despite serious concerns raised by the U.S. crew, the shoot-down was authorized by Peruvian authorities," the official said.
Three Americans contracted by the Central Intelligence Agency, and a Peruvian air force officer, were aboard the Cessna Citation 2, about 1 mile (1.6 km) from where the missionaries' plane was flying, the intelligence official said.
A Peruvian fighter jet shot down the plane, believing it was a drug flight. A woman and her infant daughter were killed, while her husband and another child survived. The pilot of the missionaries' plane was injured.
The United States said it was suspending drug interdiction flights until the Peru incident was investigated. Speaking at a news conference after the end of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, President George W. Bush said: "We've suspended such flights until we get to the bottom of the situation, fully understand all the facts, to understand what went wrong in this terrible tragedy."
The two-engine U.S. Department of Defense aircraft was providing tracking and detection information as part of joint U.S.-Peruvian efforts to stem drug trafficking.
At 9:43 a.m. local time on Friday, the U.S. aircraft notified its base of a radar sighting of a plane that had crossed 3 to 4 miles (4.8 to 6.4 km) into Brazilian territory. A second sighting occurred 12 minutes later when that aircraft reentered Peruvian airspace, the intelligence official said.
The American crew asked Peruvian authorities to determine if the aircraft was on a proper flight plan, and the Peruvians on the ground said they were unable to locate the flight plan, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Peruvian authorities decided to launch an intercept flight to investigate. The Peruvian officer on board the U.S. aircraft tried to communicate with the suspect plane in Spanish on three different frequencies, but heard no response, the intelligence official said.
The Peruvian officer then told the Peruvian A-37 jet to move to the next phase which includes firing warning shots. "It is unclear to us whether the Peruvians fired warning shots," the U.S. intelligence official said.
The Peruvian officer then quickly requested permission to move to "phase three" in which the Peruvian Air Force pilot may use weapons against the suspect aircraft with the goal of disabling it, and if the suspect plane still does not obey instructions it can be ordered shot down, U.S. officials said.
When the Peruvian Air Force officer on board the U.S. plane told the Peruvian A-37 pilot to move to phase three, the U.S. crew voiced objections, U.S. officials said.
"The U.S. crew attempted repeatedly to slow down the intercept process," and asked the Peruvians to get the tail number of the plane, but events moved very rapidly and Peruvian authorities authorized the shoot-down at 10:43 a.m. local time, the U.S. intelligence official said.
The tail number, while obtained, apparently was not called back to the Peruvian Air Force Officer in Charge in Pucallpa by the Peruvian officer on board the U.S. plane, U.S. officials said.
The intelligence official said the U.S. crew was not in the Peruvian military chain of command and had no authority or control over the actions of the Peruvian officer on board the U.S. plane.
Neither the Peruvian government nor air force was immediately available for comment.
Since March 1995, the Peruvians have shot, forced down, or strafed more than 30 drug aircraft and seized more than a dozen on the ground, U.S. officials said.
Since July 2000 there were three incidents - a shootdown on July 17, 2000 and planes forced down on Dec. 18, 2000 and Jan. 21, 2001, U.S. officials said. There were no known previous incidents where non-drug traffickers where harmed as part of the drug interdiction program, officials said.