The Saudi defense minister on Tuesday denied reports that six Iraqi helicopter pilots had defected with their aircraft across the Saudi border, and a Defense Ministry source said a mix-up occurred when Saudi helicopters flying near the border were apparently mistaken for Iraqi aircraft.
In a statement to the official Saudi Press Agency, the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, called the reported defections “baseless whether in part or in total” and issued a categorical denial that any Iraqi pilots sought political asylum in Saudi Arabia.
The defections had been reported Monday night by at least three highly placed Saudi sources and later confirmed by Pentagon officials, who said they were relying on information provided by the Saudi government.
According to their reports, six Iraqi helicopters were intercepted by a Saudi F-15 fighter jet near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, and their crews requested asylum in Saudi Arabia. Saudi and Pentagon sources said four of the copters landed near the northern Saudi border city of Ras al Khafji and two others touched down in the desert after running out of fuel.
Marines at a U.S. medical detachment in northeastern Saudi Arabia went on alert for nearly half an hour Monday night in response to reports of “incoming Iraqi aircraft,” according to reporters at the scene.
The vehement denial on Tuesday spawned widespread confusion among mid-level Saudi government officials and U.S. military officers alike and prompted speculation that Saudi officials were seeking to avoid embarrassing Iraq on the eve of delicate talks between U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz, scheduled for today in Geneva.
However, a source close to the Saudi defense minister said Tuesday that the reports apparently were spawned after a group of Saudi helicopters flying near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border were mistaken for Iraqi aircraft.
“It seems that someone mistook some movement of some Saudi helicopters,” the official said. “It seems someone saw some helicopters and didn’t know what they were. They thought they were something they were not. . . . None of them were Iraqis. None of them ran out of gas.
“You understand if it was true, we would be more than happy to say it is,” the official added. “We wish it was true, but it isn’t. . . . Under circumstances like this when there is tension in the air, anything can become a big story.”
A senior Saudi government official had initially told reporters just after 10:30 p.m. Monday that four Iraqi defectors in jet aircraft were preparing to land at Ras al Khafji. A Pentagon spokesman in Riyadh confirmed the report an hour or so later after checking with the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation. However, the spokesman specified that six Iraqi helicopters had defected, and two had run out of fuel and landed in the desert. A Pentagon spokesman in Washington again confirmed the report, based on reports from the Saudis.
Three highly placed Saudis also confirmed the reports, and one source said the aircraft had been spotted on Saudi air defense systems about 60 miles north of the Kuwaiti border and had requested political asylum once they neared the border.
“They picked them up on the air defense system, and they asked them to identify themselves, and they said, ‘We want to flee. We want to come over.’ So they had them come over,” said one source.
However, after Prince Sultan’s denial Tuesday, all three sources said they would not comment further.
On Monday, Pentagon officials, although not totally sure defections were involved, had reported that Iraqi copters had crossed the border. On Tuesday, corrections were made.
Marine Lt. Col. Stu Wagner, a Defense Department spokesman, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying: “All the reports have been Saudi government reports. . . . We’re in the process of trying to confirm it (the incident).”
And Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams told reporters: “Let me put it this way: The United States has no independent word at this point on whether these reports are true or not true. We continue to press for an answer.”
Reporters who were camped out at a U.S. Marine Corps medical facility in northeastern Saudi Arabia said in a pool report that the camp was placed on alert at 11:42 p.m. as a result of “four incoming Iraqi aircraft.”
Marine 1st Lt. Patrick Gibbons told reporters that U.S. officials had received reports that four Iraqi helicopter pilots were seeking to defect. The sentry at the camp repeated the report and said U.S. aircraft were escorting the helicopters to an air base near the medical detachment.
About half an hour later, a Navy lieutenant reported that the alert was canceled because the helicopters had landed at Ras al Khafji, about 20 miles to the north and 10 miles south of the Kuwait border.
The alert would have occurred a little more than an hour after the time that Saudi sources said the helicopters crossed the border. A Reuters photographer at the medical detachment said reporters were told to go inside when the helicopters were being moved to the air base in case it was “a trick” and the pilots turned out to be not defectors but attackers on a suicide mission.
A Saudi Information Ministry official spent all of Monday night at King Abdulaziz Air Base in Dhahran seeking details about the reported defections but returned Tuesday morning telling reporters simply, “I have nothing to tell you.”
Diplomatic sources in the kingdom said they are not certain why the Saudis would seek to deny the defections if the reports were true, except perhaps to avoid upsetting today’s talks between Baker and Aziz.
Saudi officials have been extremely cautious in discussing any details about reports that as many as 400 Iraqi soldiers have defected across the Kuwaiti border. American officials have complained they have been barred from interrogating the defectors, preventing them from gaining much insight into Iraqi operations.
Saudi officials have said privately they have not publicized Iraqi defections because of possible repercussions against defectors’ families in Iraq. They also fear that publicity could lead to widespread Iraqi defections, prompting Iraqi forces to open fire against the deserters at the border and prematurely trigger a war.
A Saudi Defense Ministry source said actual Iraqi defections into Saudi Arabia now number about 1,000, and he denied that Americans have been prevented from talking to Iraqi soldiers.
“There are a lot of kinds of Americans,” he said, apparently referring obliquely to the possibility that American intelligence agents had been granted access to the defectors.
Times staff writer Douglas Jehl contributed to this report.