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Lost Pilot's Comrade Says U.S. Plane Caused Collision


BEIJING (April 6) -- Shaking his fist in anger, a Chinese fighter pilot sent to tail a U.S. spy plane said on state television Friday that he saw the aircraft slam into his partner's jet, sending it spinning out of control over the South China Sea.

Pilot Zhao Yu's account echoed official Chinese claims that the American plane was to blame for the collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3E and a Chinese F-8 fighter. The question of who caused Sunday's collision has become key in the dispute between the United States and China over the crash.

China, which is holding the crew of the EP-3E after it made an emergency landing, says a full U.S. apology is the only way to resolve the stand-off. Washington has ruled out an apology, saying its crew did nothing wrong. President Bush has expressed regret over the loss of Zhao's partner, Wang Wei.

Zhao said he and Wang had been sent the track the American plane Sunday as it conducted surveillance off China's southern coast.

``I saw the nose and the left wing of the American plane hit Wang Wei's plane,'' Zhao told the state-run Xinhua News Agency. ``I advised Wang Wei, 'Your tail's been destroyed. Try to hold your course. Hold your course.' Wang Wei replied, 'O.K.'''

About 30 seconds later, Wang lost control of the plane, Zhao said.

``Wang Wei asked permission to bail out. I replied: 'O.K.' After that I lost contact with Wang Wei,'' Zhao was quoted as saying.

State television, in an interview broadcast on the national evening news, showed Zhao in his blue aviator's uniform shaking his fist as he condemned the U.S. plane.

State media reports have begun lionizing Wang as a ``hero of national defense'' - at the same time, preparing the public for the likelihood he is dead. A massive search has turned up no sign of him. His mother and father also were shown on television, and his weeping father said Wang was ``the son of the entire nation.''

Some U.S. officials, however, have painted him as a risky flier, saying U.S. planes had encountered him in the past. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wang had flown dangerously close to U.S. planes, once holding up his e-mail address for the American pilot to see.

``The pilot involved is apparently the same pilot who's been observed by our reconnaissance aircraft in the past,'' said a senior committee member, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. ``It appears to me on this occasion he simply exceeded his grasp.''

Xinhua, the state news agency, suggested chances of finding Wang alive were slim, saying 61/2-foot-high waves and tropical sunshine in the area left rescuers ``worrying whether the pilot could survive.''

One state newspaper, the Guangzhou Daily, carried a front-page photo of Wang bordered in black. ``The U.S. side must apologize,'' the headline said.

The photos of Wang showed a fresh-faced 33-year-old in uniform. State media said he was from Zhejiang province in the southeast, had been married for nine years and had a 6-year-old son.

China says the EP-3E veered suddenly, bumping Wang's F-8 jet. But U.S. military officials say it was more likely that Wang's nimble jet bumped the lumbering, propeller-driven American plane. U.S. officials say they will have to talk further with the crew to know for certain.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman defended Wang's actions, saying China was entitled to track and monitor U.S. surveillance flights.

``If there are people constantly harassing you in front of your courtyard and you go out to see what is happening, it's entirely normal,'' said spokesman Sun Yuxi.


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