U.S. offers regret, but no apology

Powell tries to cool anti-China rhetoric over planes' collision

`We need to move on'

Chinese still blame U.S., ignore calls to free plane, crew

April 05, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Seeking to end the tense standoff with China, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday toned down the Bush administration's rhetoric over the collision between a Navy spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter, expressing "regret" that a Chinese pilot was lost in the accident.

A day after President Bush had demanded that China release the 24-member crew and surveillance plane held on Hainan Island and Powell had criticized Beijing for holding the Americans in "detention," the secretary of state struck a more conciliatory tone.

"We regret that the Chinese plane did not get down safe, and we regret the loss of life of that Chinese pilot," Powell told reporters in brief remarks. "But now we need to move on. We need to bring this to a resolution, and we're using every avenue available to us to talk to the Chinese side, exchange explanations and move on."

China had no immediate response and gave no indication when the crew would be released. Its top leaders are still pressing for an apology, charging that the Navy EP-3E Aries II plane struck the Chinese F-8 fighter Sunday.

Pentagon officials say that it is likely that the more nimble Chinese jet hit the lumbering, turboprop Navy plane, although precise details will not be known until the crew can be questioned.

The Chinese also are pressing for the United States to end surveillance flights along its coast, even though U.S. officials say the plane was operating over international waters. Pentagon officials said there have been no EP-3 surveillance flights since the accident.

"This is an incident caused totally by the American side," said Yang Jiechi, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, in an interview yesterday with CNN. "The American side should share the full responsibility and should explain the situation to the Chinese people and should make an apology."

Asked why the 24 crew members have not been released, Yang said: "The Chinese side has every right to carry out an investigation. So the crew members are in China, because the investigation is going on."

Yang made similar comments when asked whether the Chinese had removed equipment from the plane.

"China has the right to do all the things necessary in connection with the incident, with the accident," he said.

U.S. satellite photographs show Chinese soldiers removing equipment from the plane, said Pentagon officials, who worry that U.S. technical secrets might be compromised.

U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph W. Prueher made a similar expression of regret over the loss of the Chinese pilot at a meeting in Beijing yesterday with Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. Tang demanded an apology for the incident and Prueher refused, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Bush had no public comment yesterday on the standoff and Fleischer played down the day's more conciliatory language, saying national security adviser Condoleezza Rice also has used the word "regret" in talking with reporters, though another official noted that she had not been quoted by name.

Powell had also said that he regretted the incident when he met with a small group of reporters aboard his plane Tuesday, although yesterday he emphasized the term.

Fleischer echoed the repeated Bush administration line that an apology was not necessary.

"The United States doesn't understand the reason for an apology. Our airplanes are operating in international airspace, and the United States did nothing wrong," he said.

During Prueher's meeting with Tang, the U.S. ambassador again pressed for the release of the crew members as well as full access by U.S. officials to them. U.S. envoys met with the crew on Tuesday for the first time but have not been allowed a second visit. The envoys said the crew members were healthy and in good spirits.

Prueher also told Chinese officials to return the aircraft, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

"Ambassador Prueher urged the Chinese to act quickly to resolve this matter," Boucher said. "We certainly do not want this to turn into an international incident, and we want the Chinese to work with us to that end."

Also yesterday, the Chinese ambassador met with Powell and Powell's deputy, Richard L. Armitage.

"We'd like to see a speedy settlement of this issue, but the ball is not in our court," Yang said afterward.

Pentagon and congressional sources said the United States might try to use a recent agreement with China to try and find a way out of the standoff.

The 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement allows diplomats and military officers from China and the United States to sit down to promote safety in naval and air operations, and to avoid incidents at sea.

That agreement, the first ever between U.S. and Chinese militaries, is similar to one that the United States signed in 1972 with the Soviet Union.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.