More than 500 Peruvians packed a university auditorium for a memorial service for an American missionary and her infant daughter killed when a Peruvian air force fighter fired on their small plane, mistaking it for a drug-smuggling aircraft.
The Peruvians, along with a dozen American missionaries who work here, sang spiritual songs and prayed for Veronica "Roni" Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter Charity, as well as for her husband Jim Bowers and their son Cory, both of whom survived the April 20 attack unhurt.
"It's sad that we have been left without them, but we are also happy because we know there is eternal life," Larry Hultquist, a Baptist missionary, said in opening the memorial service Friday in Iquitos, a city 625 miles northeast of the capital, Lima.
"May God help Jim and little Cory to overcome this difficult moment," said David Garcia, president of the Association of Evangelical Churches of the Amazon. "In time the truth will be discovered."
About 1,300 people attended a service Friday in Fruitport, Mich., for the victims, where Jim Bowers said he has forgiven the Peruvian pilot who shot down their small plane and said his wife would have done the same. "God's given me peace," he said.
But Bowers told reporters he thought the Peruvian air force pilots who fired on his small plane April 20th were "too quick to the trigger." The 38-year old Baptist missionary said any decent air force pilot would have allowed more time to verify that the small plane was not on a drug smuggling mission.
U.S. officials say Peru's air force shot down the Pennsylvania-based missionary group's aircraft despite signs it was probably not a drug-running plane. Peru's air force contends the pilot of the attack plane followed proper procedures, firing only after the single-engine Cessna failed to identify itself.
An American delegation was expected to travel to Peru this weekend for talks on the downing of the plane, focusing on ways to guard against future, similar tragedies.
The plane was first spotted by the crew of a CIA surveillance plane working in conjunction with the Peruvians as part of a drug-interdiction program.
The CIA crew thought the small plane might be a drug-trafficking flight, but officials say the Americans tried to stop the attack after realizing it probably wasn't a drug plane.
The incident has prompted the U.S. and Peru to suspend the airborne surveillance program, highly touted for its effectiveness in the war against drugs.
In Congress this week, lawmakers said the program must be fixed to prevent a repeat of the downing of the missionary plane.
"Anytime you have a catastrophe like that we should very intensely review procedures and find out how we can assure all involved that this kind of mistake doesn't happen again," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But, he added, "We've got to stay mindful that we're at war here."
The program involves CIA emplyees who conduct airborne surveillance over drug-growing areas of Peru and point out potential drug-trafficking planes to Peruvian air force authorities, who then decide what to do about them: simply check them out, force them to land or shoot them down.
A U.S. intelligence official said earlier this week that the CIA crew was upset when it became clear the Peruvians were set to shoot down the plane despite the Americans' pleas that they not do so until they were sure the plane was running drugs.
Crew members contacted at their base in Peru told of their uneasiness about what was going on, but they had no authority to tell the Peruvians what to do, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The downing occurred at most two minutes later.
An audiotape aboard the U.S. surveillance plane shows CIA officers expressing doubts that the civilian aircraft it had been tracking was smuggling drugs, 20 minutes before it was shot down.
The victims will be buried Sunday afternoon in Pensacola, Fla., near the home of Roni Bowers' parents.
©MMI Viacom Internet Services Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report