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Army spy planes join sniper hunt

By Sridhar Krishnaswami

Washington oct. 16. The Pentagon has officially joined the search for the "Beltway Sniper'' who has successfully targeted and terrorised the Washington D.C. area for the last two weeks, gunning down nine persons thus far and injuring two including one seriously.

The U.S. Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has approved a request from the FBI for a high-tech low-flying plane for surveillance and communications. The planes are being flown to the area and will be operational within days, it has been said.

The Pentagon has complied with a 19th century law — the Posse Comitatus Act — that prohibits a domestic role for the military by stationing none of its personnel on the ground. Rather the army's flyers will be taking federal authorities with them on the surveillance missions and the military will have no role in choosing targets.

Analysts say there are a number of advantages that come with the Army's Airborne Reconnaissance Low Plane: high resolution imagery, night vision, easier to blend with local air traffic thereby avoiding detection and infrared sensors that could pick up flashes of gunfire.

The investigative Task Force is simply stunned at the manner in which this "Beltway Sniper'' has gone about in the past 13 days, starting his shooting spree in Montgomery County, Maryland, and extending his killing to a six-county area and Washington D.C. His latest victim was Linda Franklin (47), who was an analyst for the FBI.

The entire area where the sniper has hit has been terror stricken with people afraid to leave homes or have their cars refuelled at gas stations. Local businesses have been hurt. The killer, with or without an accomplice, has gone about choosing his victims in a random manner and bringing them down with a single .223 calibre bullet fired from a distance. And in every case, he has been able to get away from the crime scene without much difficulty in spite of extensive police operations.

But in the aftermath of the latest incident, police now are slightly better off than they were several days ago in the sense that partial profiles of the gunman and the licence tag are beginning to emerge. One witness has spoken of the attacker as being either of West Asian origin or a Hispanic. Authorities are tight lipped on the kind of information they have on hand.

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