Sasser emerges from U.S. Embassy as protests fade

Ambassador expresses `remorse,' optimism about U.S.-Sino ties

War In Yugoslavia

May 12, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- After more than four days inside the U.S. Embassy here, Ambassador James R. Sasser finally emerged this morning to express remorse over the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and optimism that Sino-U.S. relations will survive despite last weekend's tragedy.

"It's terrific to be outside of the embassy," said Sasser, adding that he had not seen any protesters this morning. "We're delighted to have all of this behind us."

The streets in the tree-lined neighborhood two miles east of Tiananmen Square had been practically empty all night except for police, some Chinese residents and the occasional Western journalist.

With the angry, rock-throwing crowds gone, authorities had withdrawn most of the hundreds of police who had protected the U.S. Embassy since Saturday, when the NATO bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade ignited the largest demonstrations here in a decade.

After greeting his son, Gray, with a big hug, Sasser spoke briefly with reporters outside a building in one the capital's residential diplomatic compounds. Gray Sasser works for an international law firm and has been visiting Beijing in recent months working at a branch office here. He and his mother, Mary, and several of his friends were trapped inside the ambassador's residence several blocks away over the weekend.

Ambassador Sasser said he bore no ill feeling toward the thousands of Chinese who pelted the embassy with rocks and held him virtual hostage in recent days.

"Many of us who are here and who have talked to our Chinese friends understand their feelings of anguish and grief and, indeed, with some their feelings of rage that this could have occurred," said Sasser, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee. "It was indeed a terrible, tragic mistake. So, I'm not the one to feel any anger. I'm not angry with anyone."

Sasser said he had been concerned for his safety over the weekend as protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails and stones toward the main embassy office building where he was holed up.

"There were times, certainly Sunday, when it appeared that the police lines might not hold and we were very anxious and very worried," he said. "But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to tell us that they would assure our personal safety.

"I guess our real question was whether or not they were themselves fully aware of the magnitude of the crowds."

It was not clear today when the embassy, which has been severely damaged, would reopen. U.S. diplomatic staff members have set up a temporary office in one of the two residential diplomatic compounds here, and some have already returned to work.

Sasser said it was too early to talk about ways in which the United States could begin to rebuild its relationship with China, especially as the cremated remains of the three victims who died in the bombing had arrived just 90 minutes earlier at Beijing International Airport. But Sasser said he was confident that the nation's mutual economic and political interests would prevail.

"When we are all through grieving over this very tragic event that has occurred, the United States will still be the economic superpower in the world and China will still be the most populous nation in the world," Sasser said. "And I think wise heads will say it's in the interest of both nations to try to mend this rift and cooperate."

China's freeze on high-level relations with the United States continued. The Pentagon said Beijing has canceled next week's visit by the head of the U.S. Marine Corps; and in Washington, the defense attache at the Chinese Embassy canceled a tour of U.S. military bases.

The freeze on military-to-military contacts is to last at least through this month, Pentagon officials said.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen is tentatively scheduled to visit China next month, but that trip appears in jeopardy.

Until yesterday, the state-run media had made little mention of NATO's apologies for the attack, further enraging Chinese who could not fathom why the United States, Britain and other countries refused to say they were sorry. In an apparent attempt to quell much of the anger it had helped generate, Chinese media ran a video clip yesterday on national television of President Clinton's apology.

Chinese officials refused to accept the words of regret and complained that they appeared half-hearted.

NATO officials "were so indifferent," Li Zhaoxing, China's ambassador to Washington, told CNN. "They simply said: `Well, we're sorry.' Then they shrugged their shoulders and walked away."

U.S. officials have said the strike on the Chinese Embassy was a mistake and have blamed it on faulty information provided by the CIA.

Today for the first time, the Chinese reported the CIA's explanation for the bombing in a translation of a skeptical French newspaper story that was published in the People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece. The headline read, "CIA: Mistake?"

The publication of NATO's explanation suggested the Chinese could be moving away from their earlier insistence that the bombing was a deliberate attack. Until now, most Chinese have believed that NATO was targeting their embassy.

While they condoned and facilitated the protests, officials apparently have decided three days of rock throwing and public invective was enough.

Police blocked sidewalks along the demonstration route with huge plastic sheeting, making it more difficult for protesters to arm themselves with chunks of concrete from sidewalk tiles that were part of a renovation project.

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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