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Bush to Chinese: Time to return plane, crew

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush warned China on Tuesday that it risks damaging relations with the United States unless it quickly releases the American crew of a damaged Navy spy plane.

”It is time for our servicemen and women to return home,” Bush said at the White House. ”It is time for the Chinese government to return our plane.”

Bush said he wanted to give China time to respond to the weekend episode to prevent the stalemate from escalating into a full-fledged crisis. But, the president said, a grace period was quickly running out.



Secretary of State Colin Powell, using harsher language than the White House, said the 24 crew members were in Chinese ”detention.”

”They’re being held incommunicado under circumstances that I don’t find acceptable,” Powell told reporters traveling with him from Florida to Washington. ”The Chinese have said they’re being protected – I don’t know from what. In my judgment, they’re being detained.”




Asked whether he considered the crew hostages, Powell said: ”I don’t know I’d want to characterize it in a legal status. … I don’t know if that’s the right word because no demands have been placed.”

”I prefer the word they’re being ‘detained,”’ he said.

Powell told reporters he heard there were suggestions that China is seeking a U.S. apology for the collision between the spy plane and a Chinese fighter on Sunday.

”We have nothing to apologize for,” Powell said. ”We did not do anything wrong. Our airplane was in international airspace, an accident took place and the pilot, in order to save 24 lives, including his own, under circumstances we now have determined must have been hair-raising, safely got that plane on the ground.”

Bush said he had talked to Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy defense attache in Beijing who participated in a meeting earlier in the day with the 24 crew members – 21 men and three women – on China’s Hainan island.

”The general tells me they are in good health, they suffered no injuries and they have not been mistreated. I know this is a relief to their loved ones,” Bush said.

”The crew members expressed their faith in America, and we have faith in them,” the president said. ”They’re looking forward to coming home and we are looking forward to bringing them home.”

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the crew was being kept in guest houses – two to a unit, with the exception of the pilot, who was being held alone.

Despite the president’s appeal, there were few indications China was ready yet to give back either the crew or the equipment-laden aircraft, which was more heavily damaged in the collision than originally reported. The senior official said two of four propellers were damaged as well as the nose cone, wing flaps and equipment indicating the plane’s air speed. The plane plummeted 8,000 feet at one point, said the official, who called the pilot’s efforts extraordinary.

It was not clear whether Chinese officials had tampered with the plane, said the official, who has worked closely with Bush on the situation.

Aides said the president wanted to be careful not to inflame the situation further by issuing hard demands or a timetable for the release of the crew. His statement was intended to be firm but patient, aides said.

Bush has refrained from talking to Chinese leaders himself, allowing aides to work through channels established by the Chinese. But officials suggested that Bush might become personally involved if the crew was not returned soon.

Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, was summoning China’s ambassador, Yang Jiechi, to reinforce Bush’s message, a senior U.S. official said.

Officials said Bush’s national security team was considering a range of options in the event China does not act quickly. The options, which the officials said had not reached Bush’s desk, included canceling Bush’s planned trip to Beijing – announced just last month during a White House visit by China’s deputy prime minister – and withdrawing some diplomats from China.

Bush made his public remarks several hours after a U.S. diplomatic team met with the crew. Powell said of that meeting, ”I hope that is the beginning of an end to this incident.”

The EP-3E Aries II electronic eavesdropping plane made an emergency landing on the tropical island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet that had shadowed it over the South China Sea.

Several U.S. officials said the Chinese wanted a government apology before allowing the crew to leave China, but the senior administration official speaking for Bush said the United States had nothing to apologize for.

”This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries,” Bush said. ”To keep that from happening, our servicemen and women need to come home.”

The senior administration official said there was no evidence that the crew had been interrogated. The official refrained from calling the crew prisoners or hostages – another sign that Bush wants to prevent the situation from being inflamed.

Congress took note of the dispute Tuesday night, with the House approving a resolution condemning China’s human rights record. Lawmakers cited the detention of the 24 U.S. service members as an example of how the Chinese violate people’s rights.

China blamed the American plane for causing the collision and said it landed illegally on Chinese territory. The Chinese fighter that collided with the Navy spy plane crashed and its pilot remains missing.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin urged the United States to stop surveillance flights off the country’s coasts. A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said he doubted that would happen.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman also dismissed U.S. claims that the plane was sovereign American territory and therefore Chinese officials had no right to board it. He refused to say whether they had done so already, although U.S. officials in Washington said they believed that had occurred.

A senior U.S. defense official said the spy plane’s crew said in a message as it prepared for its emergency landing that they had begun destroying sensitive intelligence-collection equipment and information.

On the Net:

EP-3E Aries II squadron: http://www.naswi.navy.mil/vq-1/welcome.html

Pacific Command: http://www.pacom.mil/


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