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U.S. Diplomats Meet With Spy Plane's Crew


WASHINGTON (April 3) -- Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday he wanted a speedy resolution of the U.S.-Chinese standoff over an American spy plane after U.S. officials were allowed to meet with the crew. "I hope that is the beginning of an end to this incident,'' he said.

However, a U.S. official who participated in the meeting gave no indication that the 24 crew members would be released immediately.

Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy defense attache in Beijing who met with the crew members, said they were in good health. He said U.S. officials were working for their release, but gave no indication when that would happen.

Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it appeared the Chinese government would insist on an official U.S. government apology before allowing the crew to leave China.

A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, expressed surprise that the crew was not freed immediately.

"We're not at all clear on why there is a delay here,'' Quigley said.

The U.S. meeting with the crew came three days after the U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, sending the smaller fighter into the sea. China blamed the United States; U.S. officials insisted the American plane was in international airspace on a routine mission.

The incident heightened tensions between the two countries. Chinese officials said the United States should halt flights so close to China. U.S. officials said China was not following established diplomatic practices by delaying U.S. contact with the plane's 24 crew members.

"I hope that this meeting will lead to the rapid release of all of the members of the crew back to the United States so they can be returned to their families,'' Powell told reporters.

"Let's get back to other matters and put this behind us,'' Powell said at a news conference in Key West, Fla. He said he hoped the Chinese would also permit the "rapid return of our aircraft.''

"I'm encouraged by the fact that the meeting is taking place. It shouldn't have taken this long to happen. But, now that it has happened, I hope this starts us on a road to a full and complete resolution of this matter.''

"Hopefully, it will not affect the overall relationship'' between the United States and China, Powell said.

He also said the incident would have no bearing on President Bush's decision, expected later this month, on the composition of an annual arms package for Taiwan.

Bush, who said Monday that China was not responding quickly enough to U.S. requests, declined comment on the situation during a trip to Wilmington, Del. But White House officials indicated he might have more to say after the diplomats' meeting with the plane crew.

The U.S. ambassador to Beijing said earlier Tuesday that the United States wants a diplomatic solution to the standoff but would offer no apology.

"I've been a Navy pilot for 35 years, and I think the assertions they (Chinese officials) described for the collision are extremely unlikely, including where the fault lies,'' Ambassador Joseph Prueher said from Beijing in an interview with CBS' "The Early Show.''

"We really want to work this out through diplomatic channels,'' Prueher, a retired admiral, said. Asked whether he would have a problem apologizing for the incident, which has ratcheted up tensions between the two nations, Prueher replied:

"As a matter of fact, I do have a problem with it and I think our government would have a problem with it as well.'' He criticized "these assertions ... from the Foreign Ministry and the message I have been getting for the last two nights as we have been talking to the Chinese'' - that the United States is to blame.

U.S. military officials say the Chinese undoubtedly boarded the damaged plane and examined its sophisticated spying equipment.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the spy plane's crew said in a message as it prepared for its emergency landing on Hainan Island on Sunday that it had begun destroying sensitive intelligence-collection equipment and information, in accordance with standard procedures.

"The responsibility fully lies with the American side,'' Chinese President Jiang Zemin was quoted by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao. "We have full evidence for that.''

The United States is demanding that China return the crew and their EP-3E Aries II surveillance plane, which made an emergency landing on Hainan after the collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

Prueher, interviewed on ABC's "Good Morning America,'' said, "We have every reason to think the Chinese have been all over the airplane,'' which is crammed with sophisticated surveillance equipment.

Bush gave no indication how the United States might react if China delays or refuses outright.

"Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice, and with the expressed desire of both our countries for better relations,'' Bush said Monday.

The Navy late Monday released the names of the crew; they included 22 members of the Navy, one Air Force senior airman and a Marine Corps sergeant.

The EP-3E Aries II is from Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One, whose home base is Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Wash. It has a permanent detachment at Misawa Air Base in Japan.

The plane landed on the Chinese island of Hainan after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet that was shadowing it. U.S. officials said the Chinese fighter rammed the spy plane's left wing, damaging an engine. China insisted the U.S. plane created the collision.

The Chinese fighter that collided with the American plane crashed into the sea and the pilot was missing. A second fighter tailing the American plane returned safely.

"The Chinese must promptly allow us to have contact with the 24 airmen and women that are there and return our plane to us without any further tampering,'' Bush said Monday.

Anti-American sentiment in China still remains high two years after the mistaken bombing by an American warplane of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

White House officials said Bush decided not to telephone Chinese President Jiang, not wanting to suggest the White House was treating the situation as a crisis.

On the Net:

EP-3E Aries II squadron at http://www.naswi.navy.mil/vq-1/welcome.html

Pacific Command at http://www.pacom.mil/

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