U.S. to resume tracking drug flights in Colombia
BOGOTA - (AP) -- Eighteen months after an American missionary plane was accidentally shot down, the United States will resume a campaign to help Colombia track and force down drug flights, officials from both countries said Wednesday.
The CIA-run program was suspended in April 2001 in Colombia and
Peru after a Peruvian warplane mistakenly shot down an American missionary
flight over the
Amazon, killing a missionary and her infant daughter.
Colombian warplanes will intercept drug flights based on intelligence from the United States, Colombian Air Force commander Gen. Héctor Velasco said Wednesday, adding that operations are expected to resume this month.
To prevent more accidental shoot-downs, Colombian ground and air crews and pilots are receiving safety training in Oklahoma City, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Galen Jackman.
The U.S. State Department will be the lead agency handling the program after U.S. lawmakers recommended the CIA no longer manage it.
U.S. officials have said illicit drug flights from the Andes to the United States increased after the program's suspension.
The missionary plane was shot down after a CIA surveillance plane spotted what it considered a suspicious aircraft and called in a Peruvian jet to intercept it. The U.S. crew later realized the flight was innocent, but was unable to stop the Peruvians from firing.
The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that inadequate Peruvian air traffic control, poor communications and inadequate foreign language skills on both the CIA and Peruvian planes contributed to the shoot-down.
U.S. officials have said that all personnel involved in the resumed operations must be fluent in Spanish.
Jackman, director of operations for the U.S. Southern Command, said Friday that the illicit smuggling flights will be tracked by three U.S. long-range over-the-horizon radars as well as radars in the Andean ridge. U.S. Customs P2 radar planes and U.S. Navy P3 surveillance planes would also monitor flights, Jackman said at a briefing at the Southern Command's Miami headquarters.
Data on suspicious flights would go to a military center in Key West and then be relayed to a Colombian tracker at a military installation in Colombia, where U.S. officials would also be present.
The Colombians would then scramble a plane to identify the suspicious flight, which would be ordered to land. If it refuses, the Colombian military maintains the right to shoot it down.
''These will be combined operations,'' Velasco said. ``The training of our crews is being completed and we expect to resume operations this month.''
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has said U.S. assistance in the aerial interdiction campaign is a key element in attempts to cut the flow of drugs from Colombia -- the world's biggest producer of cocaine and a major heroin exporter -- and the importing of chemicals used to process the drugs.
Jackman said the interdiction campaign would resume over Peru at a later date. Peruvian Foreign Minister Allan Wagner has said Peru's war on drugs will not succeed without the U.S.-backed interdiction efforts.