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DEA did not kill 4 in Honduras, US says

Deaths came in raid involving US strike team

WASHINGTON - US officials maintained Thursday that no Drug Enforcement Administration agents fired weapons during a shootout last week in the jungles of Honduras that left several people dead. The officials also offered new details about the episode, which has touched off anti-American protests in the Central American country.

The officials said the DEA agents - part of a commando-style squad called FAST, or Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, that was on a counternarcotics mission - were allowed by the rules of engagement to shoot back if fired upon to protect themselves and their Honduran counterparts. The agents involved said that only Honduran police on the ground and a Honduran officer in a helicopter fired weapons in the gunbattle.

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“It is my understanding that no DEA agents discharged their weapons,’’ said a senior US government official who has been briefed on details of the episode.

The Associated Press reported last Friday that villagers in the northern coastal region of Honduras were burning government buildings there to protest the DEA presence.

A US official said an overhead surveillance video of part of the operation showed a plane landing in a small field around 1:46 a.m. last Friday and about 30 men unloading 14 bales of cocaine. The bales were then put on a pickup truck, which took the drugs to a boat on a river. Officials had been alerted to the incoming plane by the Colombian government.

Four helicopters, owned by the State Department but flown by Guatemalan pilots, carried the strike force of Honduran counternarcotics police officers to the river, where they landed and seized the boat and its cargo of what officials said was more than 1,000 pounds of cocaine. They also seized an M-4 assault rifle and several magazines of ammunition. As the helicopters approached, men who had been loading the boat fled into the jungle, the official said.

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Nearly an hour later, at 2:40 a.m., a second boat approached and fired at the government forces, the official said. The Honduran police unit returned fire, supported by at least one helicopter. After a brief but intense firefight, the shooting stopped, and the second boat was said to have withdrawn. Because of uncertainty over the security of the area, the government returned to their base with the cocaine.

Initially, a Honduran official told reporters that two traffickers were believed to have been killed in the gunbattle. But local leaders offered a conflicting account, saying that the helicopter had pursued a boat with traffickers but mistakenly opened fire on a different boat carrying people who were out fishing. They said four people were killed, including two pregnant women.

The US official briefed on the matter expressed doubts that villagers would be out fishing in the middle of the night, near where helicopters carrying armed police had landed nearly an hour earlier. The large number of people unloading the plane in the video, the official said, was evidence that many members of the impoverished community of Ahuas were involved in lucrative narcotics trafficking.

“There is nothing in the local village that was unknown, a surprise, or a mystery about this,’’ the official said. “What happened was that, for the first time in the history of Ahuas, Honduran law enforcement interfered with narcotics smuggling.’’

But that explanation is unlikely to calm angry villagers in the region. Leaders of the Masta, Diunat, Rayaka, Batiasta, and Bamiasta ethnic groups said in a statement that “the people in that canoe were fishermen, not drug traffickers.’’

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“For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory,’’ the statement continued.

The murky episode led Human Rights Watch to call for a “prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation.’’

“It is critical that both Honduran and US authorities ensure that the killings are thoroughly investigated to determine whether the use of lethal force was justified,’’ José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday. “If evidence demonstrates that security forces violated international standards, they must be held accountable.’’