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China frees crew

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush said Wednesday he looked forward to welcoming home the crew of the U.S. surveillance plane after a delicate diplomatic compromise ended their 12-day detention in China.

”We can’t wait for them to get home,” Bush told students at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., about two hours before a charter plane took off from Hainan island with the 24 crew members aboard. The plane was refueling in Guam early Thursday before continuing to Hawaii, where they will see doctors and be debriefed.

But the Navy plane remained in Chinese hands, its future to be taken up at a joint meeting April 18. ”The diplomacy continues, the discussions will continue,” a State Department spokesman said.



The EP-3E Aries II, crammed with surveillance equipment, collided with a Chinese fighter jet on April 1 and made on emergency landing on the island in southern China. Crew members worked to delete top-secret codes and intelligence before the Chinese came aboard.

With the charter in the air, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said a 13-member team of psychologists, physicians, intelligence officers and other specialists was on the plane 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 … with time, 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 at a Pentagon briefing.

China’s acceptance Wednesday of a letter in which the United States said it was ”very sorry” the Chinese pilot was lost and the U.S. plane had not sought permission to land broke the stalemate on the crew’s return. The Chinese had demanded a full apology.

In Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike congratulated Bush because it was hard to argue with the results of his diplomatic juggling act and low-key leadership style in his first foreign policy test. In his first major act as commander in chief, Bush waited out the Chinese with a seasoned foreign policy team that never shed its united front and repatriated the captive American servicemen and -women.

Despite the overall satisfaction on Capitol Hill, there remained those who said Bush’s confrontational style was at times too harsh, his soothing words too soft. More than that, some members of Congress geared up for more trade moves against China and were urging the administration to go ahead with arms sales to Taiwan despite China’s vehement objections.

The letter delivered in Beijing by the U.S. ambassador, Joseph Prueher, a retired admiral, to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, was written in English, which gave Chinese officials some room for their own interpretation.

Bush said the American people ”are proud of our crew and we look forward to welcoming them home.”

”This has been a difficult situation for both countries,” the president said.

”My heart is just pounding,” Shirley Crandall, stepmother of Navy seaman Jeremy Crandall, said from her home in Loves Park, Ill. ”We’re very excited.”

The spy plane’s future, meanwhile, appeared murky.

”The return of the crew has been our No. 1 priority from the beginning of this incident,” Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, said. ”We have also stated repeatedly that we expect the return of our aircraft. But as the letter states fairly clearly, that will be on the agenda at the meeting. The diplomacy continues. The discussions will continue.”

”We still have some problems with the airplane and we have to keep the airplane and to make further investigation,” said Shen Guofang, China’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations. ”The airplane violates our territory and the land without permission, so that is the problem, and also we have to make further investigation on the airplane.”

Significantly, perhaps, Shen reiterated the accusation his government had leveled from the outset – that the lumbering spy plane violated Chinese territory. The Bush administration has rejected the accusation all along, and at Secretary of State Colin Powell’s insistence the letter accepted by China refers only to the plane’s entering Chinese airspace.

”At this stage I don’t think that we (have) decided yet … when to hand over the plane, but we have to make further investigation anyway,” the Chinese diplomat said.

China wants the United States to halt the U.S. surveillance flights, though the Bush administration said that’s not up for negotiation.

In Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney said on WAMU-FM, ”With the respect to the right of the United States to continue to operate our aircraft in international airspace, that really is a given. That is not a subject that we would want to concede on.”

Throughout the talks, China demanded an apology. In Paris, for meetings with European and Russian foreign ministers on the restive Balkans, Powell said, ”There was nothing to apologize for. We did not do anything wrong, and therefore it was not possible to apologize.”

And, he said, ”We entered the airspace without permission because we were unable to get permission. Niceties and formalities were not available to us.”

As for the incident damaging relations, Powell said, ”We’ve stopped this process that was unfolding before it became more serious. … I don’t see anything that isn’t recoverable.”

After his announcement from the White House, Bush went to Concord, N.C., to promote his proposed budget. There he told a cheering middle school crowd, ”This reminds us how much American military families sacrifice for our freedom. It also reminds me it’s such an honor to be commander in chief of such wonderful people.”

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, rejected claims of some conservative activists that detention of the crew and Bush’s statements of regret and sorrow had humiliated the United States.

”This is not a humiliation for the United States,” the former CIA officer said. ”If we get our troops back … this means the sole superpower in the world, that has to deal with all the problems around the globe, has worked a very good solution to a friction point that’s bothering a large sovereign nation.”

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, commended the administration.

”It remains to be seen what effect this incident will have on the long term view of China. Over the short term I think there will be a hardening of congressional views,” he said.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said China probably realized it risked ”major economic consequences” if it detained the crew longer.

Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton’s assistant for national security, praised the Bush administration for achieving ”an honorable result” – one that he said also permitted the Chinese ”to save some face.”


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