LINGSHUI, China (AP) _ A huge Russian cargo plane arrived with a thunderous roar Saturday at an air base on China's Hainan island, on a mission to retrieve a grounded U.S. Navy spy plane.
The Antonov 124 landed at the Lingshui air base, where the EP-3E Aries II has been parked since making an emergency landing April 1 after a midair collision with a Chinese fighter jet.
The cargo plane landed at 11:17 a.m. under clear skies, the noise of its jet engines shattering the morning quiet. It arrived after a stopover at Kadena Air Base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.
The Russian plane taxied to a stop about 350 feet from the EP-3E, which remained intact, with no tools or machinery nearby. Chinese F-8 jet fighters were parked at the other end of the runway.
Plans call for the EP-3E to be dismantled and loaded in pieces on two Antonovs. The U.S. military has refused to say when the second plane is to arrive. The Navy says the work should be finished by July 11.
The Navy went ahead with the flight Saturday despite reports that the Russian air cargo company is suspected of helping to evade a ban on weapons sales to Yugoslavia in 1999.
An official told The Associated Press on Thursday that the Navy knew of reports that Polyot Air Cargo Ltd. had carried fighter jet parts to Yugoslavia. Several former Yugoslav republics were under an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations in an attempt to quell a series of conflicts.
A Navy spokesman said Polyot was picked by the company hired to dismantle the EP-3E, Lockheed Martin, and is not on a list of firms barred from receiving U.S. government business.
The Pentagon said it was forced to charter the Russian plane because China refused to let an American military aircraft land at Lingshui.
Security was tight Saturday at the base, which is surrounded by palm trees and rice paddies. Police blocked its driveway, and patrol cars drove up and down the main street that passes the site. Farmers in conical straw hats peered curiously at foreign reporters who had come to watch the Russian plane arrive.
There was no sign of an American team of diplomats and technicians sent to this tropical island in the South China Sea to prepare for the retrieval of the EP-3E.
The plane has been the focus of intense diplomatic activity since the collision, which is believed to have killed the Chinese fighter pilot.
China held the 24 American crew members for 11 days as it tried to compel Washington to apologize for the incident. The U.S. government called the collision an accident, and has blamed the Chinese pilot.
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.