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|Sunday, April 22, 2001, updated at 11:17(GMT+8)|
US Government Operated Reconnaissance Plane in PeruA US government reconnaissance plane was nearby when a Peruvian air force plane shot down a small plane over the Amazon jungle, killing a US missionary and her child, defense officials said Saturday.
"There was a US government aircraft," Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the US Southern Command, told reporters. "It was a reconnaissance-type aircraft used for tracking suspicious aircraft."
But he said the US surveillance plane did not belong to the US Defense Department, adding he did not know what agency was operating it.
The Peruvian defense ministry expressed "deep regret" for the downing of the plane near the town of Iquitos Friday, saying the air force pilot had confused the Christian missionaries' aircraft "with a plane of narcotics traffickers."
The ministry confirmed the two deaths, and also said that three people traveling in the plane had been injured.
The dead missionary was identified by the US-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism as Veronica Bowers, 36. The name of her seven-month-old daughter was Charity.
The woman's husband and son, also on the plane, survived the crash, according to the association.
The presence of a US reconnaissance aircraft in the area has again trained the spotlight on US intelligence operations in the Andes and raised questions whether the US plane had played a role in directing the Peruvian military toward the small aircraft carrying the American missionary family.
In Quebec City, US President George W. Bush said it was too early to say if the United States should share the blame for the incident.
"I will wait to see all the facts before I reach any conclusions about blame," he said.
"But right now, we mourn for the loss of a life, two lives," Bush added, saying he would discuss the incident with the Peruvian prime minister later Saturday.
Meanwhile, the US Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department, which are also involved in drug traffic monitoring in the Andes, have refused to comment on the incident.
While denying any US Defense Department aircraft were involved in the incident, US defense officials said the Pentagon is carrying out "routine and ongoing" counterdrug operations along the Andean range, which involve use of a wide variety of intelligence gathering planes.
Airborne radar AWACS planes, P-3 Orions and other aircraft are regularly scouring the airspace over Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, looking for suspicious small aircraft that could be used for drug trafficking, said a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We provide information and platform for monitoring aircraft," the official said.
However, the official pointed out that every time a US military surveillance plane operates in "sovereign airspace," it has a representative of that country's government on board, who serves as a liaison with his military.
When a suspicious aircraft is being spotted in the area, US planes alert local military authorities who scramble their own warplanes to intercept it.
"US Department of Defense planes do no perform intercepts," the official said.
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