WASHINGTON -- Administration officials say an unarmed CIA spy plane that crashed into the side of a volcano in El Salvador, killing the four Americans aboard, was monitoring Nicaragua's efforts to supply Salvadoran rebels with arms.
The mission of the unarmed plane, which crashed Friday, was 'to assist the government of El Salvador' in detecting movements and identification of shipments of arms and ammunition by the government of Nicaragua to the insurgents in U.S.-backed El Salvador, administration officials said.
In a statement, the State Department confirmed the dead were 'U.S. citizen civilian employees of the Central Intelligence Agency.'
An official at the U.S. embassy in El Salvador said the plane, flying in heavy rain, crashed into the Guazapa volcano, 15 miles north of San Salvador. The sprawling volcano, 4,686 feet tall, has been a guerrilla stronghold since 1981.
Sources close to the Senate Intelligence Committee said the plane apparently was part of the interdiction program to prevent the leftist Sandinistas from funneling arms into El Salvador.
There was no immediate identification of the dead Americans.
Administration officials only disclosed the accident after Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in Carefree, Ariz., Friday that a U.S. plane operating against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua crashed into a mountain, killing some Americans.
A diplomatic source who declined to be identified said the plane was not flying inside Nicaragua.
The State Department stressed that, 'The airplane was operating under a program that had been fully authorized in accordance with applicable procedures, including notification to the responsible committees of Congress.'
Goldwater told a luncheon meeting of the Arizona Newspaper Association that he was called by Casey just before he arrived and informed of the incident.
He said Casey told him a 'CIA plane operating in Nicaragua crashed into a mountain, killing some of our people.'
Officials indicated Goldwater may have been confused as to the location of the plane crash. A CIA spokesman said the senator 'misspoke.'
Goldwater said he received very few details on the incident but that the plane 'flew into the side of a mountain while chasing another plane believed to be carrying weapons to the enemy.'
He said the incident 'is going to be a rumble Sunday night' when President Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale meet in their second debate of the presidential election campaign.
In a statement, the State Department said, 'During the early morning hours of 19 October, an unarmed civilian aircraft under contract to the U.S. government and the government of El Salvador crashed into a mountain near San Salvador while flying during heavy rain with very limited visibility.
'The airplane's mission was to assist in locating and identifying shipments of arms and ammunition from Nicaragua to the guerrillas in El Salvador,' it said.
'The airplane was crewed by four U.S. citizen civilian employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. There were no survivors.
'Next of kin have been notified.'