Coalition military units near Karbala, Iraq, south of Baghdad, are searching for the pilot of a U.S. fighter plane that went down early Thursday. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu is traveling with one of the search and rescue units that are looking for the pilot, and she told VOA's Al Pessin in London senior officers tell her this might have been a friendly fire incident.
PESSIN: Alisha, what have you heard from senior military officers in the field about why they think this fighter went down?
RYU: What they believe happened this morning was that there were two Iraqi missiles that went up, and Patriots were called on to intercept those missiles. The Patriots went up, and they believe that the F/A-18 Hornet crossed the path of the Patriot, and the Patriot knocked it down in error. Now, that's unconfirmed; they're still investigating and looking into that, but it looks like it was a friendly fire incident.
PESSIN: I understand you're out on patrol now with a unit that's searching for the pilot who went down in the aircraft that was shot down this morning. Can you tell us what's going on on this patrol?
RYU: Yes, we're very close to the area of Karbala where we believe the F/A-18 Hornet went down. There's quite a few tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles and Hum-Vees, and they're searching the area where they believe that they can see the fin tail of the plane sticking out of the water, and it did make impact with the water. So they're doing foot patrols, as well as looking out with binoculars, and trying to assess where they might come down. They're looking for footprints of possibly the pilot coming out, if he had made it, if he had ejected. They're looking for any signs that he has come out of that airplane alive. So far, nothing at the moment.
PESSIN: So you're saying that the aircraft apparently crashed into a lake?
RYU: Correct, yes. There's a huge lake right near Karbala. It's an enormous lake, actually, but they have pinpointed the area where they believe he went down.
PESSIN: What do they think happened to the pilot? Are they assuming that he ejected safely? Do they have any data or telemetry that would indicate what his status is?
RYU: No, they lost contact with the pilot soon after the aircraft went down. They're looking for any signs of life at the moment around the banks of the lake, looking at any footprints that he might have left behind, any kind of parachute, anything like that that would indicate that he made it on shore. So far they have not seen anything that indicates that he is alive.
PESSIN: Alisha, can you give us an idea what it's like out on these patrols? What sort of people you encounter? What sort of conditions you've encountered? And what sort of techniques and tactics they would use on a search-and-rescue mission like this?
RYU: Well, it's a very, very heavily armored patrol that we go on. We're flanked by several Bradley fighting vehicles, there's an M1-A1 tank here, and we obviously have gun-mounted Hum-Vees that cover the flanks. We have armored Hum-Vees. And so far we have seen very, very little sign of life. In fact I have seen no sign of life in any of this area we've gone through this morning. There doesn't seem to be any people around, and this is quite unusual. Before when we went out on patrols near Najaf and those kinds of areas, we would see civilians, but in this area we actually are seeing absolutely nothing. What I am seeing are Iraqi bunkers. Quite a number of them have been dug out into sort of fighting positions, and there was a military installation here that was abandoned, and all around the military installation there are these fighting bunkers. I did pick up a propaganda leaflet that was dropped, urging the Iraqis to surrender. The U.S. has been dropping in this area for the troops, for the Iraqi troops. There's quite a number of leaflets on the ground, and shell casings, spent shell casings, but as far as people, there are very, very, very few signs that anybody was here.
PESSIN: So apparently there are no villages in this area, it's quite a desolate desert-type area?
RYU: Yes, it's very, very desolate. It almost looks like the Dead Sea in Israel, actually. It's a very craggy, very sandy, and deep gullies, and it's actually very treacherous terrain. Of course, this is the area where the 3rd Infantry division went through yesterday, through the Karbala Gap on its way to Baghdad, and apparently the terrain is not suitable for the tanks and for some of the vehicles out here, but they made it through. I guess they maneuvered quite carefully because the terrain is very treacherous.
PESSIN: And the fact that you are speaking to me now on the satellite phone, which takes a bit of effort to set up, makes me think that the unit has stopped, you're on a break, awaiting further instructions?
RYU: Yes, we're just waiting to see what the status of the search is going to be in a few minutes. There's an Abrams tank that's moving behind me. I don't know where they're going, but I suspect that we will be moving on shortly and making sure that all the bases are covered as far as the search is concerned, and then we'll move on a little bit further.