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US Resumes Support of Drug-Interdiction Flights Over Colombia - 2003-08-19

The Bush administration Tuesday authorized the resumption of U.S.-supported drug-interdiction flights over Colombia. The program is resuming with new safety procedures after having been suspended in 2001 when a missionary plane was mistakenly shot down over Peru.

The go-ahead for the resumption of what U.S. officials call the "Airbridge Denial" program came in an announcement from the White House, which said President Bush is satisfied that "appropriate" procedures have been put in place to protect against the loss of innocent life in connection with the interdiction flights.

Under the program, U.S. intelligence personnel and equipment had been helping Colombian and Peruvian military planes track, and sometimes force down, aircraft suspected of carrying illicit cocaine and heroin.

It was a considered a major success in suppressing the drug trade. But it was shut down after a Peruvian military plane, guided by airborne U.S. controllers, mistakenly downed a small plane over the Amazon basin in April 2001, killing an American missionary and her infant daughter.

The Colombian government had strongly supported the resumption of the flights and the two countries signed an agreement for the re-start in April.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that since then, a U.S. inter-agency team has been in Colombia working on safeguards for the use of U.S. radar and other equipment and the training of Colombian pilots and air-traffic control personnel, in order to prevent any repetition of the 2001 incident.

"We have been moving, through all these steps, to make sure that everything that had to be done could be done and was done carefully, to insure that the program can resume on a solid footing, so it can be a safe program and a program that meets the need of denying drug trafficking but also can be handled safely and not result in incidents such as the terrible one that occurred several years ago," he said.

The decision announced Tuesday affects only U.S.-supported interdiction flights over Colombia.

Negotiations continue on a similar safeguards arrangement with Peru. U.S. officials say they hope to have flights over that country going again by the end of this year.

The air-interdiction program first began in 1995 during the Clinton administration and was credited with virtually halting drug traffic in the region by air, forcing traffickers to switch to less effective ground and river shipments.

A State Department investigation of the 2001 missionary plane incident concluded that the original program had lacked adequate oversight, that too many shortcuts had crept into mission procedures, and that a language barrier had impeded communication between U.S. civilians monitoring suspect flights and the South American military pilots doing the actual intercepts.