A Saudi air force pilot flew a top-line F-15 fighter plane to Sudan this week, where he has apparently been granted political asylum, U.S. and diplomatic officials said yesterday.
The plane, purchased from the United States, was returned to the Saudis by Sudan within four hours, but the Sudanese government evidently spurned Saudi requests for surrender of the pilot, the officials said.
The incident involving one of the premier fighter planes deployed with Saudi and U.S. forces in the region was immediately disclosed to officials in Washington but has not been publicly announced. Sudan is considered sympathetic to Iraq's complaints of past mistreatment by Kuwait, invaded by Iraqi forces on Aug. 2.
A Pentagon spokesman initially responded to questions about an Iraqi News Agency report of the incident yesterday with an erroneous statement that "the pilot did not defect" but merely "flew out of radar range." The agency also said that "the pilot and aircraft have been returned" to the Saudis.
The Defense Department later retracted the statement and then referred all questions to the State Department.
"We are not concerned about any morale problem among the Saudi military or air corps," a State Department official said. He said the incident also was not considered indicative of Saudi military dissatisfaction with the operation aimed at forcing Iraq to relinquish Kuwait.
Staff writer Al Kamen contributed to this report.