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Shoot-down hits US credibility. The loss of an aircraft to Nicaraguan gunfire raises new questions about `private' American mercenaries and their links to the CIA. It has also heated up the propaganda war between Washington and Managua.

By Warren Richey and George D. Moffett IIIStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 10, 1986


The Reagan administration faces a growing credibility crisis over the downing of a privately chartered US cargo plane in Nicaragua. United States officials insist the plane, which was loaded with rifles, ammunition, and other military equipment apparently destined for contra guerrilla forces, had no connection to the US government. But there appear to be links of the aircraft, and its crew, to the Central Intelligence Agency, and two congressional committees are calling for an investigation into these links.

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An American captured when Sandinista troops shot down the plane said yesterday he worked with CIA employees and took part on 10 such flights from Honduras and El Salvador.

Eugene Hasenfus said on a nationally broadcast news conference in Nicaragua that four of the flights were made from Aguacate air base in Honduras and six from Ilopango air base in El Salvador.

He said that from 24 to 26 ``company people'' assisted the program in El Salvador, including flight crews, maintenance crews and ``two Cuban nationalized Americans that worked for the CIA.'' Hasenfus said the CIA employees' jobs were ``to oversee housing for the crews, transportation projects, refueling and some flight plans.'' He said he was told he would be paid $3,000 per month plus housing and expenses for working with the air crews.

Congressional investigators say they'll be focusing on three questions: who authorized the ill-fated flight, how it got to Nicaragua, and whether anyone connected with the flight, including the crew or carrier managers, was involved with the CIA.

Meanwhile, State Department officials are debating their next move in response to threats by Nicaragua's Sandinista government to put Mr. Hasenfus, the lone survivor of Monday's air crash, on trial in Nicaragua.

Charges of possible illegal US involvement in the six-year contra war in Nicaragua -- and the credibility questions this raises -- come as the Reagan administration seeks to contain damage from disclosures that it allegedly launched a disinformation campaign designed to topple Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, including deliberate attempts to mislead the US press. On Wednesday State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb resigned in protest over the issue.

Under existing legislation, US intelligence agencies are barred from involvement in efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government. Congress is about to grant the CIA a major operational role in the contra war as part of a pending $100 million aid package to the rebels.

So far, none of the conservative private US organizations set up to abet the contra effort have claimed sponsorship of the downed plane. Retired US Army Gen. John K. Singlaub, widely regarded as the most prominent fundraiser and organizer for pro-contra efforts, has denied any knowledge of the plane or its mission.

Questions about possible CIA involvement in the flight have hinged on reports that two of four crew members of the plane had previously been employed by a Miami-based air cargo company, Southern Air Transport. Southern is one of several air-cargo companies once owned by the CIA, then divested after the Vietnam war. According to an April 1976 report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, most were sold or given to ``witting individuals,'' including former officers, employees, managers, and contractors.