Washington - American fighters were at "battle stations" on a Florida runway when Cuban MiGs shot down two small civilian planes off Cuba's coast last Saturday, but the F-15s did not take off because the Cuban jets did not threaten the US, the Pentagon said yesterday.
Ken Bacon, a Defence Department spokesman, also denied a report by a congressman that there was a request to "scramble" the Florida Air National Guard F-15s from Homestead Air Force Base, near Miami, during last Saturday's attack, but that the request had been rejected.
Bacon told reporters a MiG-29 and other Cuban jets that took part in the shooting-down of civilian planes carrying Cuban exiles from Miami had at first headed north, but turned back south toward Cuba and then opened fire.
He stressed that the role of US fighters and the North American Air Defence Command (Norad) was to protect the US from any threat, not to protect civilian planes.
"Our planes were in what are called 'battle stations', pilots in them, engines running, ready to take off . . . as the Cuban planes appeared to approach the 24th parallel from the south.
"They [the Cuban jets] however, before reaching the 24th parallel, turned back and started going south. At that point, the [US] planes stood down and went back to a normal posture.
"I think it is fair to say it would have been impossible for US planes to get from Homestead to where this vicious, illegal act occurred in time to prevent it."
Earlier on Thursday, Dan Burton, Republican Representative from Indiana, said at a congressional hearing that he understood there had been a request to "scramble" the US jets and it had been denied.