Aircrew faults Chinese jet pilot

Fighter passed below spy craft 3 times prior to crash, envoy told

April 10, 2001|By Tom Bowman, Jay Hancock and Frank Langfitt | Tom Bowman, Jay Hancock and Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - New information from U.S. crew members about the collision of a Chinese jet fighter and a Navy spy plane shows that the Americans were not at fault, U.S. officials said yesterday, stiffening Washington's resolve in rebuffing Beijing's demands for an apology.

Interviews with the detained 24 crew members held on Hainan Island reveal that Chinese pilot Wang Wei passed three times below the lumbering EP-3E reconnaissance craft - once within two or three feet - before striking the U.S. plane's left wing with its tail and plunging into the sea, said Pentagon officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"That time he misjudged his flight path," one official said.

The force of the collision pushed the fighter in front of the EP-3E, shearing off the U.S. plane's nose. The Chinese jet "broke in two pieces" and the resulting damage to the EP-3E's propellers and nose cone caused it to drop "uncontrolled" for 5,000 feet, the official said.

The crew members' accounts belie Beijing's contention that the American plane caused the accident by veering suddenly into the Chinese fighter, U.S. officials said. Beijing has said Wang's flight partner, in a second fighter jet, saw a shift in the U.S. plane's course and the subsequent crash.

The Americans "were flying a straight and level course," said one Pentagon official. "The swerving took place after he was hit," as the U.S. plane banked left and down when its pilot lost control.

A spokesman for China's embassy in Washington said yesterday: "We stand by our eyewitness account of the other Chinese pilot."

China repeated its demand for an apology yesterday, saying it is still not satisfied with Washington's comments. "Regrettably, the United States' statements are still unacceptable to the Chinese people. We are highly unsatisfied," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bang Zao said at a news conference.

The United States has said for a week that it will not apologize for the April 1 collision. Analysts fear the collision and its aftermath could lead to a rupture in U.S.-China relations. But in recent days U.S. officials had hinted that an investigation of the incident might cause them to soften their stance. Not anymore.

"The United States has nothing to apologize for," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday, reaffirming the administration position. "The United States has taken a careful look at this matter."

In an interview, Fleischer said, "There is other information that I'm not at liberty to discuss" that has been factored into the U.S. refusal to apologize. He declined to elaborate. But Pentagon officials said the new information came from U.S. crew members who were debriefed in recent days by U.S. Embassy officials outside the presence of Chinese officials.

The somewhat tougher administration stance came as intensive talks to resolve the impasse continued in Beijing and President Bush repeated warnings made over the weekend by his aides that U.S.-China relations are at risk.

"Diplomacy takes time," Bush said before a Cabinet meeting. "But there is a point - the longer it goes - there is a point at which our relations with China could become damaged."

As they have been from the beginning, Bush's remarks on the collision were admonitory but restrained, and brief. The president retreated slightly from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's contention Sunday that "the relationship is being damaged" between Washington and Beijing.

As negotiations drag on, Bush is under increasing pressure from congressional conservatives favoring a tougher line with Beijing.

Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said the 21 men and 3 women had gone from being detainees to hostages. "If you look up the definition of hostages, I don't see what else you can describe our 24 crewmen as," Hyde said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

In China, U.S. diplomats met with the American crew yesterday for the fourth time. And U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher met twice in Beijing with Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong in what a State Department official described as "very intense discussions." Prueher and other U.S. diplomats declined to discuss details of the talks.

The sides are trying to draft a letter that would spell out their positions and give each of them a face-saving way out of the stalemate.

U.S. diplomats met with crewmembers of the crippled U.S. spy plane in a guest house on the tropical island where they are being held by the Chinese military.

"They are well taken care of," said Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. military attache in Beijing, after a 40-minute meeting with all 24 members of the crew.

The meeting was seen as an improvement in access over the past couple of days. A planned meeting Sunday never materialized, and Chinese officials allowed only eight crewmembers to meet with diplomats Saturday.

Yesterday, the Chinese government also dispensed with the daily, painstaking negotiations they had required before allowing U.S. officials to meet with the detainees.

In recent days, though, China's state-run media have taken an increasingly harder line toward the United States. In a style reminiscent of the government's propaganda campaigns, the Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, ran a front-page story about how people from all walks of life were condemning "American hegemonism."

But China's Xinhua news agency reported for the first time on the Prueher-Zhou talks, a development suggesting that Chinese media authorities may be preparing the public for a settlement, analysts said.

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