U.S., China digging in for a long siege

Bush hints impasse could go on longer than he had hoped

`Stalemate' 10 days old

U.S. turns down Jackson mediation

letter seeks way out

April 11, 2001|By Jay Hancock and Tom Bowman | Jay Hancock and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush for the first time described the impasse with China over the detention of an American aircrew as a "stalemate" yesterday as Beijing again demanded a formal U.S. apology and acceptance of responsibility for the collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane.

"This administration is doing everything we can to end the stalemate in an efficient way," Bush said after meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II. "Diplomacy sometimes takes a little longer than people would like. I urge the Chinese to bring resolution to this issue. It's time for our people to come home."

Except for his use of the word "stalemate," Bush's comments echoed his earlier remarks on the standoff, which began 10 days ago when the U.S. surveillance plane made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island after the collision. But the president appeared to be signaling his concern that the impasse could last longer than he had hoped.

The plane's 24 crew members have been held by the Chinese military but have been permitted to meet with American diplomats. The Chinese fighter pilot is missing and presumed dead.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Bush did not respond directly to an offer by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to visit China to intercede on behalf of the U.S. government to try to secure the crew's release.

"There's a lot of people that are anxious for this situation to end," Bush said. "I appreciate the goodwill of a lot of Americans who are concerned about our folks on Hainan island."

But the State Department said flatly that Jackson's offer had been turned down and that the administration would continue to negotiate through its diplomats.

Jackson, who has helped free Americans held in Syria, Iraq, Cuba and Yugoslavia, said he was working with the Chinese Embassy to try to gain entry and would go if China accepts his offer.

After meeting twice with Chinese officials Monday in Beijing, Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China, had no face-to-face contact yesterday with Chinese diplomats, U.S. officials said. Prueher has become Washington's main go-between with Beijing.

No high-level meetings were scheduled in Washington either, and U.S. officials said they were awaiting China's next move.

"I wouldn't jump to conclusions" about the lack of contact yesterday, said a senior Bush administration official. "We'll just have to see. Obviously, if this drags on, it'll be of concern."

China again called on the United States to formally apologize for the midair collision April 1, which it says was the fault of the American pilot.

U.S. officials who have debriefed the crew say the crash occurred when the Chinese fighter pilot flew too close and struck the American plane's left wing.

"Since the U.S. side has done something wrong first, it is fully their responsibility to apologize," Sun Yuxi, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a news conference.

Seeking a way out

Washington has expressed "regret" for the loss of the Chinese pilot but has refused to apologize. Diplomats are drafting a letter that would express the position of each side and - they hope - offer both nations a face-saving way out of the standoff.

Sun said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's use of the word "sorry" on Sunday to describe Washington's regret over the loss of the Chinese pilot was "a step toward the right direction."

The collision occurred during what Pentagon officials called a "routine" surveillance mission in international airspace off China's coast. Though there have been no such flights since the accident, U.S. officials refused to rule out the possibility that they could resume before the American crew is released.

U.S. officials met with crew members for the fifth time yesterday, reporting again that the detained Americans were in good health and spirits but eager to come home.

Some of the 21 men and three women have been able to exchange e-mail with relatives. Preparations were being made for the crew members to talk with their families by telephone, Bush administration officials said.

Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the military attache at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, said he and the crew had discussed sports news, such as the retirement of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, the death of Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Willie Stargell and the possibility that Michael Jordan might come out of retirement to play next year for the Washington Wizards.

`A political situation'

They also discussed the diplomatic obstacles in securing the crew's release, Sealock told reporters in Hainan.

"We discussed the emotions on both sides," he said. "They realize it is a political situation."

One Pentagon official said Chinese interrogators on Hainan are unhappy because the American crew is providing scant information.

Besides asking for details of the collision, the Chinese also are questioning the crew about details of their work on the reconnaissance plane, the official said.

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