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US TEAM on Chinese island begins work to retrieve spy plane

Updated:

BEIJING (AP) _ A team of U.S. contractors is en route to southern China to begin dismantling and shipping home a damaged Navy spy plane, U.S. and Chinese officials said Thursday.

Plans call for the EP-3 plane to be cut up and loaded in pieces onto two Russian cargo aircraft. It will be flown from Hainan island in the South China Sea to an American air base on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

A six-person crew from the contractor Lockheed Martin is scheduled to arrive Friday in Hainan, Pentagon officials said in Washington.

They will join a separate six-person team of diplomats, military and industry representatives that has been in Hainan for a week laying the groundwork for the operation.

The EP-3 has been held at an air base on Hainan since making an emergency landing there April 1 after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter. The Chinese pilot is missing and presumed dead. China held the 24 American crew members for 11 days as it tried to compel Washington to apologize for the incident.

Dismantling and loading the EP-3 onto the two Russian Antonov 124s is expected to take nearly a month. The U.S. Navy said in Hawaii that it expected work to be finished by July 11.

China rejected a U.S. proposal to repair the plane and fly it home, apparently hoping to punish Washington by forcing it to destroy its aircraft in order to retrieve it.

Lockheed Martin, the plane's builder, is to handle the dismantling. The Navy said Lockheed is paying a Chinese contractor, HNA Hotel, $75,724 for rental vehicles, equipment storage and other services on Hainan.

A Russian company, Polyot Air Cargo Ltd. of Voronezh, is to haul the disassembled plane home. The Navy did not say how much it was paying Polyot.

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