Aircrew comes home

Ambassador's letter expressing regret gains release of 24

'Nothing to apologize for'

Jetliner carries crew to Guam, ending 11-day China standoff


BEIJING - A chartered U.S. airliner took off from Hainan island early today, carrying 24 crew members of a downed U.S. spy plane to freedom and ending an 11-day standoff with China after Washington said it was "very sorry" but didn't apologize, as Beijing had demanded.

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 the president 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 of the release of the crewmen who have been 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.

Chinese leaders hope they can use U.S. expressions of regret to convince their citizens that they had wrung important concessions out of the American government and stood up to the world's lone superpower.

On the streets of China's capital last night, though, some residents already were savaging the deal. Having watched their leaders retreat from a hard-line position taken day after day in the state-run press, some accused the Communist Party of being too soft.

"If Mao were alive, it would not be like this," said Meng Xianglong, 29, a sales clerk at a city department store who watched the announcement during work.

"China has been quite soft for the last two years since the bombing of the embassy," Meng said, referring to the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the Kosovo war. "It's even softer than last time."

Others, though, took a more pragmatic and compassionate approach.

"I think China should return the crew because of humanitarian reasons," said Bai Yingbo, 22, who studies at Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University. "Even without the apology from the U.S., we shouldn't keep hostages. Keeping hostages does not show the strength of a country."

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