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U.S. Protests Access to Spy Plane

BEIJING (April 2) -- The U.S. ambassador to China said Monday that American officials were being denied contact with the crew of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane more than a day after an in-flight collision forced it to land in China.

American officials sought to keep the Chinese from boarding the aircraft, insisting they had no right to do so. There was no indication whether Chinese experts were trying to examine the EP-3's sophisticated monitoring equipment.

Three American diplomats flew to Hainan island and were making their way to an air base where the EP-3 plane landed Sunday after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace, said Ambassador Joseph Prueher. China says the fighter crashed and that a search was under way for its pilot.

In Washington, U.S. officials said the United States is keeping three Navy destroyers in the vicinity of Hainan island instead of continuing their journey home from the Persian Gulf. President Bush discussed the incident Monday with his national security team.

Chinese leaders appeared to be still trying to decide on a response. The government issued no new information after a statement Sunday blaming the collision on the American pilot. The U.S. ambassador complained that top officials weren't involved in diplomatic contacts.

``It is inexplicable and unacceptable and of grave concern to the most senior leaders in the United States government that the air crew has been held incommunicado for over 32 hours. The Chinese so far have given us no explanation for holding this crew,'' Prueher said at a news conference.

A U.S. military spokesman in Hawaii, Army Lt. Col. Stephen Barger, refused to say whether the crew was supposed to destroy their equipment to keep it from falling into foreign hands.

The U.S. plane was standing empty at the military airfield where it landed in the town of Lingshui, said a Chinese sailor contacted by telephone at an adjacent naval facility.

The crew has been moved to a military guesthouse, said the sailor, who refused to give his name.

The U.S. military says the plane was on a routine surveillance flight when two Chinese F-8 fighters intercepted it Sunday morning. The EP-3 collided with one of the fighters about 60 miles southeast of Hainan.

The unarmed propeller-driven EP-3 took off from the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. It carried a crew of 22 Navy personnel, one Air Force officer and one Marine.

The EP-3 is about the size of a Boeing 737 commercial jetliner and can monitor radio, radar, telephone, e-mail and fax traffic, according to defense experts.

Military experts say such U.S. flights to monitor China's military are routine. Confrontations have been reported in the past.

On March 23, a Chinese warship intercepted a U.S. Navy survey vessel in the Yellow Sea, said an American military official. The USS Bowditch was outside Chinese territorial waters but inside the area regarded by China as its exclusive economic zone.

The Chinese vessel followed the Bowditch until it left that area, said the military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

China has accused the pilot of the EP-3 of intruding into Chinese airspace by landing without permission after the collision. However, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Beijing insisted the pilot followed ``commonly accepted principles of international law'' for an emergency landing.

Chinese officials say the crew is safe, according to U.S. officials. They say Washington has asked China to help with repairs and return the crew as quickly as possible.

The incident comes at an uneasy time in relations between Washington and Beijing. China has been cool to the Bush administration's more cautious approach to relations. It warned that ties could suffer over the announcement expected this month of new arms sales to Taiwan, the island China considers its own territory.

Washington also has protested China's recent detention of two scholars with links to the United States.

Ordinary Chinese expressed anger and outrage at the collision Sunday. Few doubted the official explanation blaming the U.S. pilot. Discussion forums on Web sites were filled with demands to seize the American plane and jail the crew.

Public anger may have been increased by the failure of state media to report on a U.S. offer to help look for the missing Chinese pilot. Some complained that the U.S. government was more concerned with its uninjured plane crew than a missing Chinese.

``We won this battle. Even though we lost a fighter jet and its pilot is missing, we have 24 war prisoners and a surveillance plane fully equipped with the most advanced radar and electronic equipment,'' said a message on the Web site signed ``East Don't.''

Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, rejected the Chinese account blaming the American pilot. Blair said the faster, more nimble Chinese plane bumped into the larger, slower American aircraft.

Officials at Hainan government offices and the Lingshui military airport refused to comment, saying they had been ordered not to give information to reporters.

At least six reporters for Hong Kong and foreign news organizations who traveled to Lingshui were detained by police and soldiers and ordered out of the area.

Prueher said tensions would mount the longer the crew are held incommunicado.

``The downside potential if we do not resolve this well is fairly high because it can bleed over into some other areas,'' he said.

Blair, speaking Sunday in Hawaii, criticized what he called previous unsafe intercepts of American planes by Chinese fighters. He said the U.S. military had protested such behavior before the incident Sunday.

``It's not a normal practice to play bumper-cars in the air,'' Blair said.


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