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China's Military Demands Hard Line

BEIJING (AP) - China's politically powerful military stepped up pressure Saturday for Beijing to take a hard line against Washington in a standoff over a U.S. spy plane, damping hopes for the early release of the crew. U.S. diplomats met for the third time with the detained Americans.

Defense Minister Gen. Chi Haotian said the People's Liberation Army won't let Washington ``shirk responsibility.'' State media said soldiers would use their ``righteous anger'' to fuel efforts to ``protect the motherland's sovereignty and the people's dignity.''

That stern tone was in contrast to assurances by diplomats and civilian leaders that Beijing sought an early settlement and didn't want the dispute hurt U.S.-Chinese relations. It also added to suspicions that military and security forces - the most hawkish segment of the government - were obstructing a settlement.

American diplomats were allowed to meet with the 24 crewmembers early Sunday on Hainan island in the South China Sea. Their U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane made an emergency landing there a week ago after colliding with the Chinese fighter, whose pilot is missing.

No details were immediately available from the meeting involving the U.S. Embassy military attache, Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, and a second diplomat. Diplomats saw the crew twice before, on Tuesday and Friday.

U.S. officials said the two sides were trying to reach a settlement. President Bush was ``focused on continued diplomatic efforts'' to free the 24 crew members, a White House spokeswoman said.

But Washington's position was ``unchanged,'' Mary Ellen Countryman, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, when asked if an apology from the United States was still possible. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have expressed regret over the loss of the Chinese pilot, but the White House has said it will not apologize for what it says was an accident.

China's top foreign affairs official, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, told Powell in a letter made public Saturday that that stance was ``still unacceptable.'' The United States, he said, must ``apologize to the Chinese people.''

And the defense minister stepped up the pressure. ``It's impermissable for them to want to shirk responsibility,'' Chi told the missing pilot's wife, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. ``The People's Liberation Army does not agree to it. The Chinese people don't agree to it. The people of the world also won't agree to it.''

Civilian leaders could be reluctant to oppose the military on such a nationalistic issue. They already are positioning themselves for leadership changes at a Communist Party congress next year, and none can afford to be accused of bending to Washington.

Beijing officials may also fear that a compromise, with China's fighter pilot still missing, would inflame public anger.

Xinhua said soldiers were channeling their grief at the loss of the fighter plane into military strength. ``We certainly want to use righteous anger to increase the force behind developing technical training, unceasingly strengthen and defend the motherland's abilities and protect the motherland's sovereignty and the people's dignity,'' the report said.

A search for the missing pilot, Wang Wei, was in its seventh day Saturday. The search is the largest ever carried out by China's navy, covering 292,300 square miles by Friday, Xinhua said.

``Although the hope of Wang Wei surviving is getting slim, we will continue to do our utmost to find him,'' the rescue center commander, Lu Zhiyi, was quoted as saying.

Such reports in recent days in the Chinese press appear to be aimed at preparing the public for official confirmation of Wang's death. Analysts have said that would be a key step toward ending the detention of the American crew.

Wang's wife, Ruan Guoqin, wrote a letter to Bush accusing him of being ``too cowardly to voice an apology.'' The White House confirmed that Bush received the letter.

``What is incredible is your and your government's apathetic attitude toward my husband's life,'' Xinhua quoted Ruan as writing in the letter. ``Can this be the human rights and humanism that you have been talking about every day?''

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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