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Saudi Pilot Downs 2 Iraqi Jets Over the Gulf : Aerial combat: Incident marks the first such enemy incursion. Planes were carrying Exocet anti-ship missiles.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Saudi pilot shot down two Iraqi F-1 Mirage jets over the Persian Gulf just south of the Kuwait border, Saudi officials said Thursday.

The incident marked the first time Iraqi planes have crossed into Saudi territory since the beginning of the war in the gulf and apparently signaled Iraq’s intention to attack targets in the gulf or along the coast of Saudi Arabia, the officials said.

The two Iraqi jets, loaded with French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles and possibly bombs as well, were flying south along the Saudi coastline about 200 feet above the water when a Saudi F-15C swung in behind them and fired two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, downing both of them.

There were unconfirmed reports that a third Iraqi jet in the area turned back, possibly after firing or dumping an Exocet missile.

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“I cannot tell you exactly which part of the gulf (they were headed for), but I am sure they were going to attack us, because their route was heading toward us,” said the 30-year-old pilot who shot down the two aircraft, identified only as Capt. Ayedh. “You know, the whole coast is filled with oil fields, refineries, even the (air) base is located on the coast. But they were in my territory; that’s what I care about.”

An official from the Saudi F-15 squadron investigating the incident said it appeared that allied ships in the gulf were within range of the Iraqi jets’ Exocets, the powerful, sea-skimming, anti-ship missiles that have a range of more than 40 miles.

But U.S. military officials in Riyadh said they could not confirm how close the Iraqi planes came to U.S. or other allied ships, and British officers who were tracking the jets on radar said no warships came within range of the missiles.

“He can be pretty far away and still be within range,” said a U.S. Air Force spokesman. “It’s a very formidable missile, as a lot of people found out in the gulf . . . and also in the Falklands . . . .”

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It was believed to be an Iraqi-launched Exocet that struck the U.S. Navy guided missile frigate Stark in May, 1987, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, killing 37 crew members. Iraq claimed the attack was accidental. The Stark had its radar system in a passive mode and was not ready with defensive systems designed to shoot down such missiles.

The British lost the frigate Sheffield in the 1982 Falklands conflict to an Exocet fired by Argentina.

On Thursday, officers aboard the British frigate London reported tracking three Iraqi Mirage fighters from southern Iraq to the gulf, according to combat pool reports from the ship.

Saudi officials said they did not know where the Iraqi flight originated. The Mirage F-1 has a range of about 400 miles and could easily have flown from an airfield near Basra in southern Iraq, military analysts said.

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According to Capt. Ayedh and Saudi military commanders in Riyadh, Ayedh and three other Saudi F-15s were on a routine combat patrol shortly after noon Thursday when an airborne AWACS radar surveillance plane alerted them to targets approaching the Saudi border.

Ayedh said he was about 80 miles from the targets when he got the first call. The four F-15s turned east toward the coast and intercepted the Iraqi jets south of the Kuwaiti border within Saudi territorial waters, which extend out 12 miles.

Ayedh swung in about 3,000 feet behind the Iraqi planes and made a positive visual identification. The two Iraqi aircraft then broke to the sides, attempting to evade him. They appeared to dump some of their ordnance into the gulf, possibly to make their planes more maneuverable, he said.

“I am positive they knew I was there, some plane had intercepted them,” Ayedh said. “They just started breaking in front of me, but it was too late.”

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Ayedh said he fired two Sidewinder missiles, first at one Mirage and then at the other, within about five seconds.

In a dramatic cockpit videotape of the mission, Ayedh is heard being directed to the location of the Iraqi jets by an air traffic controller aboard the AWACS plane.

“Roger, we presently have two bogies, 020, 90, southbound,” the controller says, referring to the two Mirages. “Contact bogies. Should be two bogies, lead-trail.”

Presently, Ayedh confirms he has sighted the two jets and a low growl is heard, indicating that he has engaged the seeker heads on his Sidewinder missiles. “Target bandit, bandit!” he declares, indicating he has locked onto one of the planes.

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There is a long beep as the missile is fired, and then Ayedh shouts ecstatically: “First target destroyed! The first target destroyed!”

“Copy,” the controller replies.

Seconds later, another beep is heard as the second Sidewinder missile is fired.

“Both targets destroyed!” Ayedh sings.

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“820, say ID of bandit,” the controller requests.

“Both targets destroyed! Both targets destroyed!” the pilot shouts impatiently.

“Copy, both splash,” the controller radios back.

“What we saw, it looked like rain. The whole airplane just fell in little pieces,” said Capt. Khalid, a member of the same F-15 squadron who watched a videotape of the event.

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Ayedh thus became the first allied pilot of Operation Desert Storm to shoot down two planes in a single operation, Saudi officials said.

“I was confident. I knew what I was doing. I was protecting my country. There was no time or place to feel fear,” Ayedh said. “Every pilot, I’m sure, is eager to shoot down an airplane. It’s bad to kill somebody, but if he becomes an enemy, I think he deserves it.”

The apparent incursion into Saudi territory marks Iraq’s most aggressive air attack in the first week of the war. For days, U.S. military officials have said most of Iraq’s 800-plane air force remains largely intact and have theorized that it could eventually come into play.

For days, rumors have circulated among allied forces that some form of Iraqi retaliation to the massive allied bombardment of Iraq and Kuwait would occur over the weekend, which began Thursday in Saudi Arabia. Saudi pilots have referred to it as “Saddam’s Surprise,” for Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein. Civilians in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province have whispered about “Black Thursday.”

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“I think it’s one of Saddam’s surprises that he sent for us today,” said Khalid. “But we gave him a very good surprise.”

Capt. Ayedh said he believes Iraq simply has been trying to weather the allied bombardment, hoping that its defenses could take a toll on allied aircraft.

“In my mind, I think they’re trying to absorb the first hit. They absorb, and then they will attack.”

The Saudis’ squadron commander, Lt. Col. Bandar ibn Abdullah, said the incident marks the first known Iraqi incursion into Saudi airspace.

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“Iraq showed aggressiveness and hostile tactics toward us. They invaded our territory, and we shot them down,” he said. “If it’s a mistake, it’s a costly mistake, and if it’s not, we did the right thing.”

Military analysts said it was not clear why Iraq would have dispatched only two or three planes and said it is possible that the attack could be a precursor to a more expansive air effort by Iraq.

“I don’t believe that two planes is insufficient to cause, certainly, damage to the ships. But I think if they had been going to a land target or even against the naval might in the gulf, some sort of protective cover would have been a help,” said Andrew Duncan of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Back at squadron headquarters, Ayedh’s mates were jubilant. Not only was it a double kill, it was Saudi Arabia’s first shoot-down in a war. (A Saudi plane shot down an Iranian jet during Iraq’s war with Iran, but Saudi Arabia was not directly involved in the conflict.)

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“I am happy, I am proud, just like I shoot it myself!” said Ayedh’s longtime wingman, Lt. Samir al Mubarak.

SAUDI STRENGTH

Saudi Arabia is part of the multinational coalition against Iraq. On Thursday, one of its pilots apparently became the first to make a “double kill.” In a dogfight over the coast, two Saudi F-15s tangled with two Iraqi F-1 Mirages; A Saudi pilot shot down both Iraqi craft. Estimated numbers in the Saudi arsenal: AIR FORCE Personnel: 18,000 Combat aircraft: 189 Fighters: Air attack: 61 Ground attack: 78 Helicopters: 25 ARMY Troops: 40,000 Main battle tanks: 550 Artillery, towed pieces: 200 Armed helicopters: 12 Missiles: Surface-to-air: 500 Surface-to-surface missile launchers: 30 NAVY Personnel: 9,500 Frigates: 8 Patrol and coastal combatants: 12 Armed helicopters: 20 SOURCES: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Center for Defense Information.


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