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PENTAGON needs several more weeks to bring spy plane home

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) _ It will be several more weeks before the United States gets back the Navy spy plane that landed in China and became the center of a chill in U.S.-Chinese relations.

The two governments announced agreement Thursday on a plan to disassemble the plane for shipment to the United States aboard Russian-made chartered private aircraft.

``This is a fairly complicated procedure, but it's not unprecedented by any stretch,'' said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley.

Since the 1960s, the Navy has taken apart P-3C patrol aircraft and converted them into EP-3 spy planes, Quigley said. He estimated the first piece of the plane will not be flown out of China for several weeks.

The agreement finally clears the way for the surveillance plane to be transported from Hainan island off southern China, where it made an emergency landing April 1 after colliding with a Chinese fighter that had been monitoring it.

The agreement will have the aircraft broken down into four major parts _ the two wings, the fuselage and the tail assembly _ with the pieces to be flown home aboard one or more Antonov 124 cargo planes, Quigley said.

The collision and China's 11-day detention of the flight crew caused the worst tensions between the United States and China since a U.S. warplane flying for NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in the 1999 air war over Yugoslavia. The Pentagon said the embassy was targeted mistakenly.

China expressed hope that ties with Washington can now be patched up.

``China and the U.S. have solved the plane incident,'' said Sun Yuxi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. ``The crew members have returned, and now the disassembling and transportation of the plane also is solved. So we hope bilateral relations can come back to a normal track.''

The Antonov cargo plane will bring the pieces of the spy plane back to an as-yet-undetermined location for reassembly.

The Antonov, which Quigley described as the largest cargo aircraft in the world, will be chartered from a private company. The Pentagon would like to hire two.

Along with a four-member U.S. assessment team already in China, a fifth engineer specializing in runways was to arrive soon to determine how much weight can be borne by the Hainan runway where the plane landed, Quigley said. The airport normally is used for smaller, lighter fighter planes, he said.

The amount of weight the runway can bear will help determine how much can be put on each flight off the island and, therefore, how many flights will be needed, he said.

The crew, and equipment needed for the project such as cranes and jacks, could begin arriving at the airport toward next week.

Engineers and technicians from the plane's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corp., will do the work.

Quigley said he does not know how much the operation will cost.

Dismantling and sending the plane home represents ``about a month's worth of work,'' he said.

``Ultimately, the components would be refurbished, the plane would be reassembled, and it would go back into regular use.''

Both sides appear to have compromised.

Washington originally wanted to repair the plane and fly it home. China refused that option and instead suggested that the plane, about the size of a Boeing 737 commercial jet, be cut into pieces and crated home, which would make it impossible to return the $80 million aircraft to service.

Pentagon officials said the private Antonov planes owned by companies in Russia and Ukraine were necessary because China refused to allow a U.S. military plane to come for the crippled aircraft.

China accuses the U.S. plane of causing the accident and held the 24-member crew on Hainan until President Bush approved a letter expressing regret over the loss of the Chinese pilot and the plane's unauthorized landing on Hainan.

U.S. officials accused the Chinese pilot of recklessly flying his more agile F-8 fighter into the lumbering, propeller-driven surveillance plane in international air space.


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