Bush Urges Return of Crew

Tuesday, April 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAIKOU, China (CNN) -- U.S. diplomats were allowed to meet with the crew of a grounded Navy spy plane Tuesday in China, but said the 24 men and women who had been aboard won't be released immediately.

President Bush warned China that its failure to release the crew members, whom he described as being in "good health," could hurt U-S.-Chinese relations.

"Our approach has been to keep this accident from becoming an international incident," Bush said in brief comments outside the White House. "We have allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing, but now it is time for our service men and women to return home, and it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane. This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries. To keep that from happening, our service men and women need to come home."

The meeting betweem the U.S. diplomats and the plane crew took place shortly before midnight (noon EDT) on the island of Hainan, where the surveillance plane made an emergency landing Sunday after a collision with a Chinese jet fighter.

U.S. crew members were in good health and were being treated well, said Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy's defense attache -- but he gave no indication when they might be released.

It was the first contact between the crew and U.S. authorities since the plane landed.

"I hope it is a beginning of an end to this incident," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Florida. "I hope that this meeting will lead to the rapid release of all of the members of the crew ... and I hope also it will lead to the rapid return of our airplane."

Chinese officials, meanwhile, stepped up their rhetoric Tuesday by calling China the "victim" in the spy plane standoff. Chinese authorities also asserted a right to inspect the sophisticated aircraft, demanded an apology and called on the United States to end surveillance flights off their coast.

The EP-3 Aries II was being shadowed by Chinese jets over the South China Sea when it collided with one of the fighters. The spy plane landed on Hainan, while the Chinese pilot ditched his plane and was still missing Tuesday.

Powell said he was bothered by China's slow response to U.S. requests for a meeting with crew.

"We could have resolved it much earlier, I think, and without creating the level of interest there is and the level of difficulty we have had," he said. He urged China to release the crew and aircraft, "and let's get back to other matters and put this behind us."

The Pentagon has warned China that the plane, which is packed with sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment, is sovereign territory that should not be boarded by Chinese troops. But Pentagon sources said Tuesday that Chinese troops have boarded the plane and were taking away equipment.

Powell said he could not confirm those reports. But U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher said there was "little doubt" that the Chinese have been aboard the damaged Aries.

A Pentagon official said Monday that the crew started to destroy sensitive equipment before the plane landed in Chinese territory, but the official did not know how much was dismantled.

The U.S. aircraft carried 22 Navy personnel, one Marine and one Air Force member. It was based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Seattle, Washington, and 14 of the crew members have families living on the base. The Navy has assigned officers to assist the crew's families.

"Hopefully, based on the facts that our representatives are meeting with them, this will come to a rapid conclusion," said Capt. William Marriott, the wing commander overseeing the patrol squadron said Tuesday.

Chinese officials repeated their argument Tuesday that the United States is to blame for the incident. Chinese President Jiang Zemin demanded U.S. officials accept full responsibility for the collision and halt all surveillance flights near China's coast.

In a statement carried by China's official Xinhua news service, Jiang said he "cannot understand" why U.S. surveillance flights come so close to Chinese territory.

"This time, in violation of international law and practice, the U.S. plane bumped into our plane, invaded Chinese territorial air space and landed at our airport," Jiang said.

The United States must "bear full responsibility" for the incident, the official Xinhua news agency quoted Jiang as saying.

The U.S. says the collision was an accident and the plane was on a routine surveillance mission in international air space when the collision occurred.

U.S. President George W. Bush demanded the prompt return of the plane on Monday, but there was no indication that the crew, which includes three women, would be handed over to the visiting diplomats.

Bush administration officials said Tuesday they have no plans to apologize and downplayed Beijing's call for an apology.

The incident comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-China relations. Hard-liners in both countries are urging their governments to take a tougher line toward each other.

The Bush administration is trying to redefine the relationship between China and the United States from that of a "strategic partner" to a "strategic competitor." Since taking office in January, Bush has toughened the U.S. policy toward China on human rights and religious freedom.

The administration also is considering whether to sell destroyers equipped with the advanced Aegis air defense radar system to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

In addition, a senior Chinese army officer recently defected to the United States, and Beijing is holding two U.S. scholars -- one a Chinese-born U.S. citizen detained on unspecified charges, the other a U.S. resident accused of spying.

Officials from both countries say interceptions like the one that occurred off Hainan on Sunday -- Saturday night, in Washington -- are routine. But collisions are not.

China says the American pilot caused the crash by suddenly veering into the Chinese jet, one of two sent up to follow the plane. But U.S. military authorities say it was more likely that the faster, lighter Chinese jet brushed against the slower, propeller-driven spy plane.

Bush offered Monday to help the Chinese search for the missing fighter pilot, but China rejected that offer: Three U.S. warships that had been traveling to the collision site were leaving the South China Sea on Tuesday.