China says U.S. fully responsible for collision

Monday, April 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SANYA, China (AP) _ The United States is fully responsible for a collision between a U.S. Navy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, China's president said Tuesday, as American diplomats waited on a tropical island, hoping to see the plane's 24 crew members.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao quoted President Jiang Zemin as saying the unarmed EP-3 surveillance plane violated international law and intruded into Chinese airspace by making an emergency landing without permission on Hainan island in southern China.

``The responsibility fully lies with the American side. We have full evidence for that,'' Zhu quoted Jiang as saying of Sunday's collision.

``China is the victim,'' Zhu said.

Also Tuesday, China said it has the right to conduct its own investigation into the collision, which caused a fighter to crash. It wasn't clear if that meant the Chinese felt they have the right to board the plane, which the United States says is sovereign U.S. territory and cannot be boarded without permission.

Asked at a Beijing news conference if Chinese authorities had boarded the plane, Zhu did not respond directly. ``Based on Chinese law, and international practice, we have the right to conduct an investigation.''

Appearing to mock the American claim that the plane is protected by international law from outside inspection without U.S. permission, Zhu smiled and told the reporters: ``If this plane is sovereign American territory, how did it land in China?''

Zhu also quoted Zemin as saying the United States should stop reconnaissance flights near the Chinese coast. ``China cannot understand why the U.S. conducts such frequent surveillance missions,'' Zhu quoted Jiang as saying.

The U.S. plane landed at a Chinese naval air base near the town of Lingshui after an in-flight collision with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea. China says its fighter pilot parachuted out and is missing.

The U.S. military says its plane was on a routine surveillance mission in international air space. After it was damaged in the collision, the pilot and 23 crew members safely landed.

Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats waited on Hainan island, saying China had given them ``the expectation'' that they could see the crew.

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher, speaking to reporters in Beijing, said the meeting could take place as early as Tuesday evening, ending a wait that prompted complaints by President Bush. Prueher didn't say whether China had made a formal commitment to the meeting.

``We had a meeting last night with Assistant Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong at the Foreign Ministry where he gave us the expectation that we will see the crew this evening. And we are expecting to do that,'' Prueher said.

Three U.S. diplomats waited in the resort city of Sanya, near Lingshui. One of them, military attache Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, said they were ready to meet the crew ``as soon as possible.''

Sealock later left Sanya for Haikou, the island's capital about 120 miles to the north. He said the U.S. Embassy had told him to go to Haikou without explanation. The other diplomats remained in Sanya.

Prueher complained about the length of time that had passed without contact.

``We're not so pleased that it's taken 60 hours in order to bring this about. That's too long a time,'' he said.

Also Tuesday, China said a massive search by planes and ships had turned up no sign of its missing pilot. The official Xinhua News Agency said for the first time that the pilot parachuted out of his plane.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin expressed ``great concern for the safety of the missing pilot,'' according to Xinhua. It was Jiang's first reported comment on the incident.

U.S. officials have complained that China is slow in responding to diplomatic contacts. It's not unusual for China's secretive bureaucratic system to take a long time to make decisions, especially where the military or national security concerns are involved.

The collision occurred about 60 miles southeast of Hainan. The island, a popular tourist destination, is 400 miles west of Hong Kong.

U.S. officials say China did not respond to an offer to help search for its missing pilot.

A sailor at a facility adjacent to the Lingshui base said Monday the plane was standing empty on the runway and the crew had been taken to a military guesthouse.

China says the American pilot caused the crash by suddenly veering into the Chinese jet, one of two sent up to follow the plane into Chinese airspace. U.S. military authorities say it was more likely that the faster, lighter Chinese plane brushed against the lumbering propeller-driven EP-3, which is about the size of a 150-seater commercial jetliner.

Reporters who tried to visit the air base on Monday were detained by armed guards. On Tuesday, the road to the base was closed.

In a second day of protests in Hong Kong, about 20 people marched on the U.S. consulate, chanting for the United States to ``stop spying in China.'' About 100 people demonstrated there on Monday.