Gulf War pilot feared dead for a decade may still be in one of Saddam's prisons

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The Independent Online

American authorities are investigating new evidence that a Navy pilot shot down on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War may still be alive and locked up in one of Saddam Hussein's prisons.

The mystery over the fate of Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher was reopened this week by The Washington Times, which reported that British intelligence had recently passed on to the Pentagon information from a recent visitor to Iraq, who had heard that an American pilot was a prisoner there.

The development is the latest twist in a tale that began a few months after Commander Speicher's F-18 was shot down on 17 January 1991, at the very start of Operation Desert Storm to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

It was first assumed that Commander Speicher had died. But a visit to the crash site that took place in 1995 found remains of the aircraft, which showed signs that the pilot had successfully ejected.

Four years later, an Iraqi defector reported another sighting, and on 11 January 2001, just before he left office, President Clinton ordered that Commander Speicher be reclassified from "killed in action" to "missing in action".

Iraqi officials have always denied the story, and Bill Speicher, Michael's cousin, said this week that he was "sceptical". Those who hold similar views insist that, if the pilot were still a prisoner, he would long since have been used for propaganda purposes by the Iraqi regime.

Others, however, point out that Saddam has often had prisoners held long after the wars in which they were captured. An Iranian captured in the Iran/Iraq war was released after 17 years, in 1998, while some Kuwaitis are still said to be held in Baghdad, almost 12 years after the Iraqi invasion.

A spokesman for the State Department said yesterday that it was using "all channels of communication" to resolve the mystery – which has re-emerged as the United States intensifies its threats to topple Saddam Hussein.