U.S., Chinese officials say deal struck on spy plane
WASHINGTON (AP) – A crippled U.S. spy plane stranded in China will be coming home in pieces, possibly aboard a huge Russian-designed cargo aircraft, under a tentative agreement between U.S. and Chinese officials.
The two nations are still negotiating details of the return, officials cautioned Monday, but it appeared the impasse has been broken in the incident that soured U.S.-Chinese relations.
The United States has been demanding return of the lumbering EP-3 since it landed in China on April 1 following a collision with a Chinese jet fighter.
”People are talking about the AN-124” to fly the spy plane out, a U.S. administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The transport plane is identified on military Internet sites as the world’s largest cargo aircraft.
Under this scenario the wings and tail section of the the EP-3, which is about the size of a Boeing 737 commercial jetliner, would be taken off the plane. The sections would then be flown out in one or two of the huge Rusisan-designed AN-124 cargo crafts.
While there has been speculation that the plane could re reassembled and again made airworthy, it could not be learned Monday if that was for certain. The administration official referred the question to Pentagon technical experts, who could not be reached over the Memorial holiday.
The AN-124, which first flew under the Soviet flag in 1982, is made both in the Ukraine and Russia and used commercially.
In China, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying the United States would be permitted ”in principle” to send an Antonov-124 to pick up the plane.
Asked how long it would take to get the plane home, the U.S. official said: ”What we said was we wanted to get the plane back via the quickest possible means. This is one way to get it out in an expedited way. We don’t have a timeline.”
The Navy plane has been at a Chinese air base on the southern island of Hainan since the collision above the South China Sea, a crash that cost the life of the Chinese pilot. After the crippled U.S. plane made what China called an unauthorized emergency landing, the crew of 24 was held for 11 days while each country blamed the other for the accident.
U.S. technicians who inspected the plane earlier this month said it could be made air worthy, and Washington officials pushed Beijing to let the aircraft be repaired and they flown out of China.
Zhu said last week that China would let the United States have the damaged plane back, but said flying it out would be ”impossible.”
U.S. officials said China originally refused to consider allowing a cargo plane to land at Lingshui air base, fearing the runway wouldn’t be able to handle the massive aircraft’s weight. That could have forced the plane to be chopped up and crated out, condemning the $80 million aircraft to the scrap heap.
The U.S. plane was eavesdropping on Chinese military communications from international air space when the collision happened.
The U.S. says the smaller Chinese jet hit the slower moving EP-3, and Washington has not apologized for the crash. Instead, Bush approved a letter saying America was ”very sorry” for the Chinese pilot’s death and for the U.S. plane’s landing without China’s permission.
On the Net:
State Department notes on China: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/bgn/index.cfm?docid2742
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