U.S. Diplomats meeting crew of spy plane held in China

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

BEIJING (AP) _ American diplomats met Friday for a second time with the crew of a Navy spy plane held on a southern Chinese island, the U.S. ambassador said.

The afternoon meeting on Hainan island began an hour and 20 minutes late, Ambassador Joseph Prueher told reporters. He did not give any details of the meeting or explanation for the delay.

He said U.S. and Chinese officials were in close contact discussing the incident that began Sunday when the American EC-3E collided with a Chinese fighter jet above the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot is missing and feared dead. President Bush expressed regret for the death, but the United States has refused China's demand for a formal apology.

``We are in fairly intense talks,'' the ambassador said outside the U.S. Embassy. ``We are working it hard.''

American diplomats in Haikou, the capital of Hainan, left their hotel earlier Friday in a motorcade of three black sedans led by a car from the paramilitary People's Armed Police. Four of the seven diplomats were in military uniform.

Police pulled over the cars of reporters who tried to follow the motorcade.

American officials were allowed to meet for the first time with the crew on Tuesday, more than two days after the collision. They said the crew appeared to be healthy and in good spirits.

Despite the positive development, China blames the U.S. plane for the collision, about 60 miles south of Hainan. While welcoming U.S. expressions of regret, it has remained adamant in insisting on a formal apology.

In Chile on the first stop of a 12-day Latin American tour, President Jiang Zemin repeated the demand for a U.S. apology, but said both sides should ``manage this issue to the maximum interests'' of U.S.-Chinese relations.

Ahead of Jiang's visit to Cuba next week, President Fidel Castro insisted that China ``will not be easily intimidated.'' Speculating on the reason for the current tone from Washington, Castro said: ``Nostalgia for the Cold War? Pressures for a military industrial complex? Craziness? It is unknown.''

Bush echoed earlier comments by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing regret Thursday for the Chinese jet's pilot, who has been missing in the South China Sea since he parachuted after the collision.

``I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing and I regret one of their airplanes is lost,'' Bush said. ``And our prayers go out to the pilot and his family. Our prayers are also with our own servicemen and women and they need to come home.''

Asked if the United States might offer an apology to China, Bush said, ``I have no further comment on this subject.''

Jiang said China was exasperated by continued American surveillance flights near its coast. Such flights are said to gather information on China's military by recording radio, radar and other signals.

``American planes come to the edge of our country and they don't say excuse me,'' Jiang said. ``This sort of conduct is not acceptable in any country.''

China has questioned the crew of the EP-3E, though both sides agree that the U.S. plane was in international airspace when it collided with one of two Chinese F-8 fighters sent to track it.

The Chinese accuse the U.S. plane of violating its territory when it made the emergency landing on Hainan island.

``They have caused this air collision incident and they also entered illegally into Chinese airspace. It is fully natural for competent authorities in China to question them about this incident,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said Thursday.

At the same time, China has discouraged public protests, in contrast to its support for demonstrations following NATO's bombing in May 1999 of Beijing's embassy in Yugoslavia. On Thursday, police took away for questioning four people who attempted to put up posters or make statements outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Traveling with Jiang in Chile, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said the crisis would be resolved according to international law.

``We don't want the United States to become our enemy and China does not constitute an enemy for the United States,'' Zhu said.

U.S. officials also underscored the importance of resolving the impasse quickly. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested that Bush's support for free trade with China might hinge on the outcome of the crisis.