Saudi Official Denies Report of Iraqi Copter Crew Defections
DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ The Saudi defense minister on Tuesday denied that six pilots manning Iraqi helicopters defected to Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon also issued a disclaimer, but there were persistent indications some aircraft crossed the border.
One Saudi source reported Monday that four Iraqi planes were about to land in Saudi Arabia. Another Saudi source and two separate U.S. military spokesmen later reported six helicopters crossed from Kuwait - four landing 10 miles inside the border at Khafji and two making an emergency desert landing after running out of gas.
Iraq strongly denied reports of the defections, saying there had been no Iraqi air maneuvers anytime Monday.
If true, it would be the first major defection from Saddam Hussein’s air force since the Persian Gulf crisis began with Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
Instead, the defection story went dry Tuesday.
The Saudi government said nothing.
The U.S. Joint Information Bureau in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, said it had received no additional details from the Saudis to add to their initial bare- bones account.
The Saudi Press Agency said Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz ″categorically denied that any Iraqi aircraft took refuge in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.″
″Most regrettably this report is fabricated and totally baseless and no pilots defected,″ the defense minister was quoted as telling reporters at a military graduation ceremony in Riyadh.
The Pentagon, which had been the first to officially confirm the defections Monday, released a statement Tuesday night denying any knowledge of them.
″Neither the United States nor the Saudis can confirm yesterday’s reports that Iraqi helicopters defected into Saudi Arabia,″ Army Maj. Mike Dobie said.
″Neither the U.S. nor the Saudis have any Iraqi helicopters in custody.″
Journalists in separate areas of the desert in northeastern Saudi Arabia as part of ″combat pool″ exercises reported different incidents that gave credence to the initial report of helicopters arriving in the kingdom.
Four journalists staying overnight at a U.S. medical detachment near a Saudi military base were awakened by a sentry who told them the communications center had reported ″four incoming Iraqi aircraft,″ their pool report said.
Marine 1st Lt. Patrick Gibbons, public affairs officer with the group, reported four Iraqi pilots flying their helicopters said they wanted to defect. The sentry said U.S. aircraft were escorting the copters and that they were going to land ″right here″ at an adjacent air base, according to the report.
Shortly after midnight, Washington Post reporter Guy Gugliotta and Gibbons were told by a Navy lieutenant the media could all ″stand down″ because the helicopters had landed at Khafji, 20 miles north of the medical detachment.
The other pool members were Rob Jagodzinski of Stars & Stripes, David Evans of the Chicago Tribune and Jonathan Ferziger of UPI.
In the other incident, CBS-TV cameraman Jim Helling, 31, said he was part of a three-man CBS crew that spent Monday night in the tactical operation center at a private airstrip south of Kuwait.
On Tuesday morning, he said, the crew was told by an Army media escort who had telephoned the U.S. Joint Information Bureau in Dhahran that six Iraqis had defected in helicopters.
″Another public affairs officer, a major from 7th Corps, who had been trying to sleep in the tactical operations center, said, ‘That explains what I heard last night, which was a query to the duty officer in the Tac Center asking what to do with six helicopters.’
″The response overheard by the major was ’Well, I don’t know. I can’t help you,‴ Helling said.
In Washington, Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams said Tuesday the United States couldn’t confirm whether the reported defections ″are accurate or inaccurate.″
The U.S. military has AWACS surveillance planes operating in northern Saudi Arabia around the clock, and observers said it was unlikely six helicopters would be able to cross the border unnoticed.
What seemed more likely, observers here said, was that the Americans did not want to antagonize the Saudis, who maintain strong government secrecy, never letting reporters see any of the 300-plus Iraqi troops who have defected here.