Aircrew comes home

Ambassador's letter expressing regret gains release of 24

`Nothing to apologize for'

U.S. jetliner carries crew to Guam, ending 11-day China standoff

April 12, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - A chartered U.S. airliner landed in Guam shortly before midnight Eastern time on a flight from China, carrying 24 crew members of a downed American spy plane to freedom and ending an 11-day standoff after Washington said it was "very sorry" but didn't apologize, as Beijing had demanded.

The 21 men and three women boarded a Continental Boeing 737 that took off about 7:30 a.m. local time from the civilian airport at Haikou, the capital of Hainan, bound for the U.S. territory of Guam, then Hawaii.

After giving crew members their first chance to talk with family members by telephone, a military C-17 was to carry them across the Pacific to Hawaii. Because of time changes, they were arriving at dawn of the same day they left China.

The crew will be staying at Pearl Harbor Naval Base for two days of briefings before returning to Whidbey Island, Wash., for a homecoming celebration scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said a 13-member team of psychologists, physicians, intelligence officers and other specialists was aboard the charter flight to check on the crew's health and begin debriefings.

"What we're looking for is, before the details of the collision start to fade ... , we want to see if we can capture their memories ... and get their understanding, in their own perceptions, in their own words, of the details surrounding the accident," Quigley said.

"We're very pleased," said Shirley Crandall, stepmother of Navy Seaman Jeremy Crandall, from her home in Loves Park, Ill. "My heart is just pounding."

Given the political stakes and Beijing's earlier insistence on an apology for a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and an American spy plane, yesterday's agreement seemed a sobering outcome to an episode marked by high tension and harsh words.

The Chinese government agreed to release the crew after the United States said it was "very sorry" for the loss of a Chinese pilot and for entering Chinese airspace for an emergency landing.

"As the U.S. government has already said `very sorry' to the Chinese people, the Chinese government has, out of humanitarian considerations, decided to allow the crew members to leave China after completing the necessary procedures," Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua news agency.

News of the decision met with joy and relief in Washington, where the stalemate between the world's most populous country and its most powerful one had presented the Bush administration with one of its first foreign policy tests.

"I'm pleased to be able to tell the American people that plans are under way to bring home our 24 American servicemen and women from Hainan island," President Bush said from the White House. "This has been a difficult situation for both our countries. I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot. Our prayers are with his wife and his child."

Yesterday afternoon, U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher handed a letter to Foreign Minister Tang which said both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "expressed their sincere regret" over the loss of Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot, who is missing and presumed dead.

The letter also said the United States was "very sorry" that the crippled U.S. plane did not receive verbal permission before entering Chinese territory after a collision with the Chinese jet in international airspace over the South China Sea on April 1.

Nowhere, though, did the United States take responsibility for the collision or - in either Chinese or English - use the word "apologize."

Speaking in Paris, where he was attending a meeting on the Balkans, Powell said: "There was nothing to apologize for.

"To apologize would have suggested that we had done something wrong, or accepting responsibility for having done something wrong, and we did not do anything wrong and therefore it was not possible to apologize."

A key aspect of Beijing's release of the Americans was Washington's agreement to a meeting, to be held Wednesday at an undetermined location, to discuss the cause of the accident and ways to avoid similar incidents.

Prueher's letter acknowledged that the meeting will give the Chinese a venue to protest U.S. reconnaissance flights along China's coast.

For the past week and a half, Chinese leaders had demanded a full apology from Washington as an implicit condition for the release of the crew members, who were being held at a military guesthouse on Hainan. They had also demanded that the United States stop surveillance flights along the nation's coast.

They appeared to receive neither.

What the two sides agreed upon in the end was a carefully worded and deliberately ambiguous letter that expressed formal regret, with caveats.

"We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely," said the letter, which was signed by Prueher.

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