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Exclusive Friendly fire downs Pakistani F-16; U.S. in a coverup

By RICHARD SALE

WASHINGTON -- A Pakistan Air Force F-16 accidentally shot down a companion F-16 previously reported to have been hit by a Soviet-made missile last May during combat over Afghanistan -- and U.S. officials assisted in the coverup, administration officials said Saturday.

'It was pilot error,' a U.S. intelligence source said of the jet fighter's loss.

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Pakistan's attempt to cover up the accident was assisted by some Pentagon and State Department officials who felt the false report of a Soviet 'kill' might help promote Pakistan's bid to acquire sophisticated U.S.-made AWACS radar airplanes, administration sources told United Press International.

However, Pakistan first concocted the story primarily to 'save face' and prevent any embarrassment of its Air Force, which has created an F-16 craze among the Pakistani people, they said.

Asked about the disclosure that the plane was downed by friendly fire, a defense official at Pakistan's Washington embassy said, 'This we do not know because we have no links with our Air Force Department.' He declined further comment.

Ken Dirken, a State Department spokesman, denied any department involvement in a coverup of the accident, arguing that the United States lacked 'independent means of confirmation.' A Pentagon official, who stuck to the original contention that the Soviets downed the plane, acknowledged receiving reports of the accident but said they were regarded as 'less credible' than Pakistan's official version.

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Following the incident, administration officials quoted Pakistani counterparts as announcing that six Soviet-made Afghan aircraft entered Pakistan airspace and that two Pakistani aircraft patrolling the area chased them across the border over neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistani military officials said one of the Afghan planes then downed the F-16 with an air-to-air missile, according to U.S. analysts.

Pakistan operates 40 F-16s which it has received under a $3.2 billion military aid plan that began in 1981.

An administration official described the aircraft as 'indisputably superior' to any comparable Soviet planes in the region. The official said Pakistan was particularly embarrassed about the accident because the F-16 has 'seized the imagination of the Pakistani people' to the extent that there are 'F-16 cafes, F-16 T-shirts and F-16 bumper stickers. You can even see F-16s on the flaps of buses in Islamabad.'

Administration officials told UPI the actual accidental shoot-down of the F-16 occurred May 1 when a pair of F-16s were flying air patrol along the hostile Afghan border.

A U.S. intelligence source said, 'The Soviets attempted deception,' using the Su-22s as decoys to lure the F-16s into pursuit and then 'ambushed them with MiGs.'

Said one, 'The Afghan pilots like to fly in trail -- in other words, two or three planes fly abreast with other planes following two to four miles behind.'

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In the ensuing dogfight, an F-16 fired an AIM-9L air-to-air missile and turned, but the plane on his wing 'crossed into the missile's path' and 'simply flew into it,' administration officials said.

A U.S. analyst said, 'This isn't hearsay. Theevidence is indisputable.'

A State Department official said 'this kind of accident is not unknown to our own Air Force,' noting that at least three similar incidents had occurred during the Vietnam War involving F-4 fighter bombers.

According to Soviet-controlled Afghanistan press reports at the time, the F-16s were in pursuit of Soviet-made Su-22 fighter-bombers when they were 'jumped' -- or surprised -- by MiG-23 fighters.

The Afghan press reports simply said the Pakistani had been downed.

Administration officials said that the F-16 crashed on Afghan territory. The pilot ejected, and parachuted into Afghanistan. He later was safely returned to Pakistan by Mujahedin rebels, they said.

A U.S. intelligence source said that the accident 'is by no means' a reflection on the competence of the Pakistan Air Force whose pilots are 'excellent -- second perhaps only to Israel's in skill and capability.'

On March 30, Pakistani F-16s shot down two Soviet aircraft, a An-26 bomber and a Su-22 fighter, in air-to-air skirmishes over Pakistani territory, administration officials said. On April 16, Pakistan F-16s destroyed another Su-22.

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'Most violations of Pakistan territory are very quick and very shallow. You have to be there on the spot,' administration officials said.

The officials said that there have been 497 violations of Pakistan's airspace as of July 3, exceeding the 1986 pace that resulted in a year-end total of 750 violations.

Pakistan is still talking with the United States about acquiring three Grumman E-2C Hawkeye airborne warning planes to help curb incursions by Soviet fighters from Afghanistan, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued that there are no Hawkeyes available and assigning any to Pakistan would lower U.S. readiness requirements, administration officials said.

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