Talks on spy plane advance

U.S., China try to pen letter that could lead to crew's release

`A common understanding'

April 07, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Fresh signs of progress emerged in the U.S.-China spy plane standoff yesterday as American officials in China met for a second time with a detained U.S. aircrew and diplomats on both sides worked to complete a letter that U.S. officials hoped would lead to the crew's release.

Five days after an American reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese jet over the South China Sea, administration officials said they were heartened by developments but still uncertain whether continuing negotiations would produce freedom for 24 Americans held on China's Hainan Island.

"We're working hard to bring them home through intensive discussions with the Chinese government," President Bush said. "We think we're making progress."

Details of the sensitive talks were closely guarded. But in interviews and public remarks, U.S. officials mapped out the path they hope will lead Washington and Beijing out of a diplomatic thicket.

The sides were trying to write a letter expressing each country's views on what happened when the U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided, forcing the American aircraft to make an emergency landing on Hainan.

The letter, which U.S. officials said would stop short of the apology that China has demanded, would set the stage for formal meetings between the sides on how the collision occurred and how to avoid similar incidents.

The letter "will contain exchanges of views, first at the level of the ambassador and the foreign minister," said Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He said drafts of the letter were being reviewed by Bush and China's president, Jiang Zemin. "So it will reflect a common understanding."

The letter would repeat earlier U.S. expressions of regret for the missing Chinese pilot, he said.

By participating in a formal review of the cause of the accident, the United States could at least leave open the possibility that its pilot was at fault. That might yield a face-saving compromise between Beijing's demand for an apology and Washington's assertion that no apology is warranted, foreign affairs analysts said.

Diplomats on both sides have been working almost around the clock to resolve the impasse. The back-and-forth continued late yesterday as Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, huddled for the third time this week with Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi.

"We would expect to continue meeting in Beijing or Washington overnight and into the weekend," an administration official said last night. "We're going to continue talking."

It was unclear when the crew might be released if events proceed as Washington hopes. Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. military attache in China, met for an hour with the crew and said the 21 men and three women were in "great spirits" and "looking forward to getting released from their current situation and returning home."

U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing were making contingency plans for transporting the crew home.

Sealock, who briefed Bush yesterday morning, said the crew was housed in quarters usually used by Chinese military officers. They were sleeping two to a room, except for the three women, who bunked together, and the aircraft commander, who had his own quarters.

"The rooms that they're in are clean and well-lit, and they have all the provisions they need," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "They're receiving catered food from the outside, so the Chinese are taking good care of our men and women."

The Pentagon distributed a photograph of 11 of the crew members, taken at their first meeting with U.S. Embassy officials, earlier in the week. The photo showed the 11 sitting at a table, looking toward the camera with little expression.

For reasons that were unclear, the meeting was delayed more than five hours, and Sealock was reported to have met with Chinese officials for more than three hours before being allowed to see the crew. Administration officials are concerned that the Chinese military, which holds the Americans, may be less willing than the civilian leadership to free the Americans and may try to hinder their release.

Joseph Prueher, U.S. ambassador to China, said another visit by his staff to the detainees was scheduled for today.

Also in China yesterday, a second Chinese pilot who had been patrolling the coast Sunday with Wang Wei said he saw the U.S. plane hit his partner's jet fighter, shredding its tail and sending it careering out of control.

The interview showed the pilot, Zhao Yu, in a blue uniform shaking his fist in anger. "Wang Wei's airplane had no way to evade it. It suddenly collided with him," Zhao said. "The outer propeller on the left wing hit the tail fin of Wang Wei's aircraft. Bam! It was smashed into bits, like little pieces."

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