Bush calls missionary plane incident 'terrible tragedy'
Survivors of shoot-down in Peru return to United States
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Sunday called the downing of a missionary plane over a jungle in Peru a "terrible tragedy" but said the United States had played a limited role in drug surveillance missions in the area.
The plane had been mistaken for a drug trafficker's and was shot down Friday by a Peruvian Air Force plane.
"Our role was to ... provide information as to tail numbers," Bush said at a news conference in Quebec City, Canada, at the close of the Summit of the Americas. "Our role was to help countries identify planes that failed to file flight plans ... our role was simply to pass on information."
"I want everybody in my country to understand that we weep for the families whose lives have been affected," the president added.
U.S. authorities suspended anti-drug surveillance flights in Peru pending an investigation of the shooting, for which Peruvian officials have also expressed regret.
Meanwhile, the three surviving U.S. citizens from that downed plane returned to the United States on Sunday.
Passengers Jim Bowers, his son Cory, and pilot Kevin Donaldson arrived in Houston at dawn, said E.C. Haskell, spokesman for the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism.
Bowers, 38, and his son, 7, who were uninjured in the shooting, boarded a flight to Raleigh, North Carolina, where they were to reunite with family members Sunday afternoon.
The bodies of Bowers' wife and their 7-month-old daughter, Charity, remained in Peru. "We're concerned about that," Haskell said. "The Peruvian government has them." Veronica Bowers, known as Roni, was 35.
Donaldson and his wife, who was in Lima, Peru, at the time of the shooting, are to arrive Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia on a flight from Houston. From there, they will travel to West Redding Hospital in Redding, Pennsylvania, where he is expected to undergo surgery.
Donaldson, who was shot in both legs, lost at least four quarts of blood after the shooting but is not in a life-threatening condition. "I think his legs are in serious condition," Haskell said.
The Peruvian plane shot at the missionaries' plane Friday morning, causing it to crash-land in the Amazon River, where it caught fire. The survivors were rescued by a Peruvian in a dugout canoe.
Their arrival in the United States may help clear up confusion about the events that led to the shooting. The Peruvian Air Force has said Donaldson filed no flight plan, entered Peruvian air space from Brazil and did not respond to attempts at radio communication from the military plane.
Haskell disputed Peru's claims. He said he had been told by Donaldson's wife that the pilot did file a flight plan. "He had made contact with the tower in Iquitos, and they verified there was a flight plan," Haskell said. "They verified by radio that it was being changed. They were in constant radio contact."
And CNN has obtained from the North American Float Plane Service in Iquitos a copy of a flight plan dated April 19 that details Donaldson's scheduled round-trip itinerary between Iquitos and Islandia, Peru. The plane service also provided a copy of a letter from Donaldson to aviation authorities, requesting permission to stay overnight in Islandia. A company spokeswoman said Donaldson's wife gave them the material.
Haskell contended that Donaldson's Cessna 185 never left Peruvian air space. "We have a GPS [global positioning system.] They know exactly where they are." Furthermore, Haskell said, Donaldson had logged hundreds of hours of flight time. "These guys are not amateur pilots jumping around in the jungle."
And Haskell said Donaldson had responded to the military plane before the shooting. Donaldson told his wife, who then told Haskell, that the Peruvian military plane radioed the pilot and that he responded to it on an international channel. "There was no response back from the [Peruvian] aircraft" prior to the shooting, Haskell said.
The Baptist ministry has been in Peru since 1939 and has led an aviation ministry there since 1961. "It's not like we're a new kid on the block," Haskell said.
The downed Cessna has been impounded by the Peruvian government, Haskell said.
"It's obviously a tragic mistake," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, on ABC's "This Week." "I think it's bad procedure to have the potential for any shoot-down based on suspicion of less than evidence of actual deployment of drugs."
Former drug czar Barry McCaffrey said the Peruvian practice of shooting down drug planes "darn near put a stop to air smuggling of drugs."
Safety concerns need to be addressed, he said, "but we have to be very determined to confront a criminal organization that kills 52,000 Americans a year."
U.S. officials said a private plane chartered by the CIA first alerted the Peruvian Air Force pilot of the missionaries' Cessna, part of an ongoing effort by several U.S. agencies to patrol the area for drug traffickers.
The U.S. officials said a Peruvian officer was on board the U.S. aircraft, a customary practice. That officer's job was to communicate with the Peruvian military about any suspicious flights, U.S. officials said.
An embassy official in Lima said he had been told to refer all queries to the State Department, but officials did not return calls Sunday.
But a government source told CNN a Peruvian government representative was on board the flight -- standard procedure, so that those representatives can warn their military about what they see.
"It seems like there's a lot of backtracking as far as trying to make sure blame is put somewhere else," Haskell said.
Bowers is from Muskegon, Michigan, and had been working in Peru since 1993. His wife was from Pace, Florida, on the Panhandle near Pensacola.
Donaldson, 42, of Geigertown, Pennsylvania, has been a missionary in Peru since 1983.
The Bowerses had been in Peru for eight years, working on a riverboat, traveling the Amazon and its tributaries, ministering in villages and working in medical clinics and literacy programs.
The ABWE is a 74-year-old organization based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that has about 1,300 missionaries in 65 countries.
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