CHINA indicates it will release spy plane, but talks continue

Thursday, May 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ China signaled Thursday that it will release a U.S. surveillance plane held since a collision with a Chinese fighter jet, but said it was waiting for word from Washington on how to transport the plane home.

``We haven't said that we will not return this plane to the U.S. side,'' said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi.

Sun said the two sides were still consulting on the plane's fate. The Navy EP-3E has been held on the southern island of Hainan since the April 1 collision with a Chinese jet over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed and China held the U.S. crew of 24 for 11 days.

China has already said it will not allow the U.S. plane to fly out of Hainan under its own power _ a position Sun repeated Thursday at a regular briefing for reporters.

A Ukrainian airline said Wednesday it had received an indirect inquiry from the U.S. government about the possible charter of a huge Antonov freight plane to remove the grounded U.S. plane from China. But Sun said Beijing had heard nothing official from Washington.

``We have long said that we hope the U.S. side will take a long-term and pragmatic and positive attitude to address this issue,'' he said. ``As to how this plane will be transported, to date the U.S. side has not yet officially informed us of any plans to transport the plane out of China.

``We'll keep in contact with the U.S. side,'' he said.

The Navy plans to give medals to the crew members. The pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, will receive the Distinguished Flying Cross at a ceremony Friday.

Sun did not comment directly on the awards, but repeated Beijing's position that the U.S. crew caused the collision by violating flight rules. China claims the slow-moving propeller-driven surveillance plane veered into the nimbler F-8 jet.

``The responsibility lies with the U.S. side,'' Sun said.

U.S. officials say the Chinese pilot caused the collision by flying recklessly.