China says detained crew of U.S. spy plane to be released

Wednesday, April 11th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ China said Wednesday that it will release the 24 U.S. air crew members who have been detained on a southern Chinese island for 11 days.

Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said the crew would be released ``on humanitarian grounds'' as soon as ``appropriate travel procedures'' were completed.

``The Chinese government has decided to allow the crew to leave China,'' said Chen Ci, director of the foreign affairs office on Hainan island, where the crew is being held. He would not say exactly when the 24 crew members would be allowed to leave.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the two countries were working out details for the release.

``If the U.S. side is cooperative enough, it won't take long. But I won't go into details,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said. He added that ``the Chinese side has all rights to conduct comprehensive investigation into the foreign reconnaissance plane.''

The crew of the U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane has been held on Hainan since April 1. The plane made an emergency landing there after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet. The Chinese pilot is missing and presumed dead.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher delivered a letter Wednesday afternoon to the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying the U.S. government was ``very sorry'' about the incident.

``Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss,'' Xinhua quoted the letter as saying. According to Xinhua, the letter goes on to say that Washington is ``very sorry the entering of China's airspace and landing did not have verbal clearance.''

China has accused the U.S. pilot of illegally entering Chinese territory by making the emergency landing on Hainan without obtaining permission in advance.

The American letter expressed appreciation for ``China's efforts to see to the well being'' of the crew.

In his televised statement, Tang urged Washington to cooperate in settling the dispute and to do nothing that would damage relations between the two governments.

``China puts great importance on its relations with the United States,'' Tang said.

In the hours before the announcement, China had appeared to be readying its public _ whose outrage has been whipped up by increasingly shrill anti-U.S. comments in state media _ for ending the standoff. State television reported a statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell saying Washington was ``sorry'' that the spy plane entered Chinese airspace without permission to make an emergency landing after the collision April 1. And a Chinese admiral was quoted as warning that the nation might have to accept the death of the missing pilot.

Experts had said a key condition for winning the release of the crew would be an announcement on the fate of the pilot whose F-8 collided with their EP-3E surveillance plane. State media have lionized the pilot as a patriot who crashed defending his country. Reports say more than 1,000 military and civilian vessels had joined the search in the South China Sea.

``Wang Wei is our good comrade-in-arms, the hero in our mind, and the model for us to emulate,'' the state-run China News Agency cited Zhu Renping, a political instructor in Wang's unit, as saying.

A comment by the Chinese navy's No. 2 political officer came the closest yet to an admission that Wang did not survive.

``As time passes, the chances of Comrade Wang Wei's survival grow slimmer. We can no longer refuse to face the unfortunate truth,'' Xinhua quoted Vice Adm. Hu Yanlin was quoted as telling the pilot's wife.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Defense Department released more details aimed at backing up its argument that the U.S. plane was not to blame for the collision. A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the crew has reported that the Chinese fighter made two close passes before the collision, bolstering the argument that its pilot was recklessly aggressive.