Bush warns Chinese

U.S. envoy visits crew

Incident could harm relations with U.S., president declares

Air crash details emerge

Powell says 24 held in `detention'

China wants apology

April 04, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Three days after a collision between a Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, a U.S. envoy met for the first time with the crew of the crippled aircraft, while President Bush demanded the release of the 24 men and women and warned that the incident could damage relations between the two countries.

"It is time for our servicemen and women to return home," Bush said in a terse statement at the White House. "And it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane."

But the Chinese government showed no signs of ending the tense standoff, saying yesterday that the United States must apologize for the incident, which it blamed on the American plane.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell flatly rejected such action, saying the United States has nothing to apologize for and that the Chinese were holding the crew in "detention."

Meanwhile, new details emerged yesterday about the collision Sunday over the South China Sea and its aftermath on the Chinese island of Hainan.

The U.S. plane, a four-engine turboprop EP-3E, lost power from one engine and sustained damaged to a second engine and the plane's nose, a Pentagon official said.

The crew issued a "mayday" call over the international air distress frequency, and the plane dropped "several thousand feet" as the pilot prepared for an emergency landing on Hainan.

"The pilot deserves an Air Medal for getting that plane on the ground," said the Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The crew, in its final radio transmission to its command upon landing, said armed Chinese soldiers were boarding the aircraft, Pentagon officials and a congressional staff member said.

Satellite photographs showed the Chinese placing a tarpaulin over part of the aircraft and removing equipment from the spy plane, which held some of the most secret and sensitive surveillance gear and software in the U.S. arsenal, the officials said.

Bush was clearly losing patience over the incident.

"Our approach has been to keep this accident from becoming an international incident," he said. "We have allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing."

The incident, he said, "has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries. To keep that from happening, our servicemen and women need to come home."

White House aides said the president wants to avoid escalating the situation by issuing demands or setting a strict timetable for the crew's release.

Richard L. Armitage, the No. 2 official at the State Department, summoned China's ambassador, Yang Jiechi, to discuss the matter, officials said. U.S. officials were considering a range of options should the standoff continue, among them canceling Bush's trip to Beijing in October and recalling some diplomats from China.

Pentagon officials say the Chinese jet caused the accident by flying underneath and striking the slower surveillance plane. Officially, the Pentagon said it could not determine the cause of the collision until officials can speak at length with the crew.

The pilot and sole crew member of the Chinese jet was still missing yesterday. His F-8 was one of two shadowing the U.S. plane off Hainan, where it was completing a surveillance mission along the Chinese coast from its base on Okinawa, Japan. The plane uses sophisticated listening equipment to pick up electronic emissions, from phone and radio conversations to radar and missile telemetry.

Before Bush's remarks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao told a Beijing news conference that the U.S. crew's fate would be decided after a Chinese investigation. Asked when the crew would be released, he replied: "I don't know."

Zhu said Washington should "'admit its mistakes" and "make an explanation to the Chinese government and people on this incident, instead of raising this or that demand or trying to shirk its responsibilities."

He said Chinese President Jiang Zemin had expressed "great concern" for the Chinese pilot and said "the responsibility fully lies with the American side."

Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy defense attache, met with the crew members yesterday at an undisclosed location on Hainan, later telling reporters that they were in "good health," had suffered no injuries and had not been mistreated.

A Pentagon official said that because Chinese officials were present, there was no "wide-ranging discussion" between Sealock and the crew, beyond receiving details of damage to the plane and the rapid descent to Hainan.

The official said the Chinese referred to the U.S. crew - three women and 21 men - as being in "protective custody." The Pentagon has released the names of the crew members and said the plane's commander is a Navy lieutenant.

"They're being held incommunicado under circumstances that I don't find acceptable," Powell told reporters traveling with him from Florida to Washington. "The Chinese have said they're being protected - I don't know from what. In my judgment, they're being detained."

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