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Diplomats Meet With Spy Plane Crew

HAIKOU, China (AP) - After a weekend of hardline rhetoric and growing U.S. impatience, two American diplomats met Monday with all 24 crew members of a downed U.S. spy plane.

Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. military attache to Beijing, said the crew members were in ``excellent health and their spirits are extremely high.''

``They are well taken care of,'' said Sealock, who met for 40 minutes with the Americans along with a consular official. He described their living conditions on Hainan island in the South China Sea as like a ``hotel environment.''

It was the fourth meeting with the crew members since they were detained after making an emergency landing on Hainan following an April 1 collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

The meeting came amid growing U.S. impatience for the release of the crew. In Washington, President Bush cautioned that any delay could be detrimental to U.S.-China ties.

``Every day that goes by increases the potential that our relations with China will be damaged,'' Bush told reporters during a Cabinet meeting.

China insisted anew Monday that Washington apologize and take responsibility for the collision. It gave no direct reaction to a weekend statement by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that Washington was ``sorry'' for the fate of the Chinese fighter pilot, who is missing.

``In consultations, the Chinese side has emphasized that the entire responsibility for this incident rests with the U.S. side,'' the state-run Xinhua News Agency said, citing China's Foreign Ministry.

``The U.S. side must apologize to China and adopt measures to ensure this sort of event will not reoccur.''

In Haikou, the head of Hainan's foreign affairs office reiterated China's frustration with surveillance by U.S. spy planes. He said they had ``seriously disturbed'' local lives and tourism.

``Hainan people demand the U.S. side stop such spying activities and apologize to the Chinese people for this incident,'' Chen Ci said at a joint press conference with Sealock. ``We welcome American tourists to Hainan for holiday-making but not the spy planes.''

Returning from a meeting at the Foreign Ministry on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher said talks were ``making progress,'' but did not elaborate.

``We hope we are moving a little closer toward a solution,'' Prueher told reporters.

U.S. diplomats visiting Hainan have sought daily access to the detained Americans.

American officials were allowed to see eight crew members during their last meeting Saturday. They gave them printouts of e-mails from their families, said Salome Hernandez, another diplomat.

Meanwhile, Xinhua cited officials describing ``perilous'' rescue conditions in the region where a search is under way for the missing Chinese pilot. It added to reports that appear to be intended to prepare the public for a declaration of his death.

High winds and waves, sharks and water temperatures of less than 86 degrees mean the longest anyone can survive is about three days, Liu Shi, head of the State Maritime Search and Rescue Center, was cited as saying.

Nevertheless, Liu said that if Wang used all of his emergency supplies, there was a chance he could have survived.

``Wang Wei could still be alive. We sincerely are hoping for a miracle,'' Liu said.

Analysts have said China's military is unlikely to agree to release the Americans until the fate of its pilot is known. Chinese authorities have confirmed they questioned the U.S. crew. They accuse the U.S. pilot of breaking the law by making an emergency landing at a Chinese air base without applying in advance for permission.

The White House has declined to apologize for the incident, saying it believes the collision was an accident. China's Defense Minister Gen. Chi Haotian said over the weekend that the army wouldn't let Washington ``shirk responsibility.''

Chinese civilian leaders could be reluctant to compromise for fear of alienating the influential military or looking weak before major leadership changes to be decided next year at a Communist Party congress.

U.S. officials have warned that further delay could cause strains that spill over into other issues, such as trade ties and U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan.

In his first public comments on the dispute, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian said Monday that he hoped Washington and Beijing would quickly resolve the impasse and that it would not cause the United States to cut back on arms sales to Taipei.

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

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