CHINA firm on refusing U.S. plane to fly off island

Tuesday, May 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ China's refusal to allow a U.S. Navy spy plane to fly home, forcing the dismantling of the $80 million aircraft, was based on political rather than technical considerations, officials in Beijing said Tuesday.

U.S. officials had wanted to repair the damaged EP-3 Aries II and fly it off China's Hainan island where it landed April 1 after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

But China says that's impossible. Instead, the two sides have tentatively agreed that the plane will be transported home in pieces.

``We have explained the Chinese reason. It's not a technical issue, it has to do with the nature of this plane and how and where it landed,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said Tuesday in explaining China's refusal.

The collision, which killed the Chinese pilot, and China's 11-day detention of the U.S. plane's 24 crew members caused the worst tensions between Washington and Beijing since NATO bombed China's embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999.

China accused the U.S. plane of causing the April 1 collision and of then violating Chinese sovereignty by making an unauthorized emergency landing at a military airport on Hainan. Beijing rejected Washington's explanations that the bombing was a mistake.

Deputy Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said in early May that allowing the plane to fly home would ``further hurt the dignity and sentiments of the Chinese people.''

Zhu said the ``agreement in principle'' to dismantle the plane and load it onto a commercial freight aircraft was worked out recently between a Chinese assistant foreign minister, Zhou Wenzhong, and Michael Marine, the acting U.S. ambassador to China.

Details are being discussed, Zhu said. One plan under consideration calls for taking the wings and tail off the EP-3 and flying the sections out of China aboard a giant Russian-designed AN-124 cargo aircraft.

Reinforcing signs that tensions will continue even after the U.S. plane's return, Zhu said Tuesday that China has refused permission to let the USS Inchon, an anti-mine ship, dock in Hong Kong next month.

Zhu did not link the refusal to the spy plane collision, but said China opposed the resumption of U.S. spy flights along its coast.