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Downed Plane Not Ours, Shultz Says : 2 Americans in Advisers Unit, Managua Claims

Times Staff Writer

The Nicaraguan government Tuesday put on display the American captured after the crash of a contra supply plane and alleged that he and one of the Americans killed in the crash were U.S. military advisers in El Salvador.

Looking dirty and sunburned, American Eugene Hasenfus appeared briefly at a press conference in Managua and acknowledged in a terse statement that he had been captured by Sandinista troops in southern Nicaragua.

Sandinista military officials at the press conference said that Hasenfus will be interrogated and that a decision will be made later about whether to charge him with any crimes.

Hometowns Not Given

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The officials said that two of the three crew members killed in the C-123 transport plane that was shot down Sunday also were Americans. They were identified as Capt. William H. Cooper, a pilot with Southern Air Transport of Miami, and Wallace Blaine Sawger Jr., the co-pilot. Their hometowns were not known.

The third crew member killed apparently was a Nicaraguan, but was not identified.

The Sandinista government alleged that two of the Americans, Hasenfus and Sawger, worked for the U.S. military group based in El Salvador. Sandinista officials presented to reporters authentic-looking identification cards issued by the Salvadoran air force that identified them as U.S. military advisers.

Also found on Cooper’s body, officials said, was a laminated identification card issued by Southern Air Transport in April of this year and signed by the company’s personnel director, Carl Holzea.

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Officials also displayed business cards that Cooper allegedly was carrying from the commander of the Salvadoran navy, Lt. Col. Humberto Villalto, and from the operations coordinator of the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office, the U.S. government office that was established last year to distribute $27 million in non-lethal aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, called contras.

The Southern Air Transport company, for which Cooper allegedly worked, has an office across the street in Miami from the office of United Nicaraguan Opposition, the contras’ political wing. The transport company company was once owned by the CIA, which severed its connection in the mid-1970s, at the insistence of Congress. The company has denied periodic press reports that its planes fly weapons and other supplies to the contras.

In Miami, a spokesman for the company denied that the downed C-123 belonged to Southern Air Transport. “We didn’t have any airplanes in that area,” said the spokesman, who declined to give his name. “It definitely was not our plane.”

U.S. Role Alleged

“In my mind, there is no doubt that the logistical support of the contras comes from the U.S. government,” said Nicaraguan Lt. Col. Roberto Calderon, chief of the 5th Military Region, where Hasenfus was captured.

“We know the contras, or the CIA through the contras, have been operating from El Salvador and entering from the south to supply the counterrevolutionaries. We know they also have used Honduran territory to supply the counterrevolutionaries,” Calderon said.

U.S. officials in Washington and in El Salvador Tuesday denied that the Americans worked for the U.S. government, saying they were employed by private organizations backing the contras. The contras have been relying heavily on private aid while waiting for the Congress to finalize a $100-million aid package.

The camouflaged aircraft was shot down by a Sandinista battalion about 20 miles north of San Carlos in the southern province of Rio San Juan.

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Worked as ‘Kicker’

Calderon said that Hasenfus parachuted out of the aircraft Sunday and was captured Monday about noon. He said Hasenfus was “a kicker” whose job it was to shove supplies on board out to contras on the ground.

Hasenfus, 45, was brought on stage briefly and, at the prompting of a Sandinista army official, recited his name and residence.

“My name is Gene Hasenfus. I come from Marinette, Wisconsin. I was captured yesterday in southern Nicaragua,” said the American, who was wearing soiled blue jeans, a green T-shirt and a soiled blue work shirt.

Officials said he will be interrogated and that he will have another press conference in a few days.

Flight From Miami

Earlier, as he was evacuated from Rio San Juan province, Hasenfus told reporters that the C-123 flight originated in Miami, picked him up in El Salvador and then stopped in Honduras to pick up the Nicaraguan crew member before entering Nicaragua air space from Costa Rica.

Asked what he was doing in Nicaragua, Hasenfus responded, “I was shot out of the sky.” Hasenfus said he had participated in four other airdrops of supplies to the contras, according to Calderon.

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Calderon said that in the last three months, 15 flights from Costa Rica have violated Nicaraguan air space. The flights are thought to be supplying guerrillas of two contra armies, the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, active in southern Nicaragua.

Photographers who visited the area where the aircraft crashed said the plane’s wreckage had burned and was strewn across an expanse of jungle. They said some of the inside sections of the aircraft showed instructions stenciled in English.

Sandinista officials said they still were recovering the three bodies from the scene.

Calderon said that Hasenfus told officials the C-123 that was shot down was one of five contra aircraft based at the Ilopango air force base in El Salvador. He said the registration number of the aircraft was C-824.

No Official Word

Meanwhile, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said the government has received no official word on the three Americans. Alberto Fernandez, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Managua, said officials sent two diplomatic notes to the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry asking that a consular official be allowed to talk to Hasenfus and requesting more information on the deceased Americans.

Saul Arana, head of the North America section of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, said in an interview that the Sandinista government is not obliged to respond to the notes immediately and that officials expect to do so today.


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