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Talks Under Way To Release American Crew

By BARRY SCHWEID

WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States and China are exchanging "rather precise ideas'' for the release of the 24 crew members of a top-secret American surveillance plane, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday.

The likeliest arrangement is to have the two sides make their cases at a special meeting of a joint maritime commission set up two years ago to enhance safety on the seas, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press.

In this way, the United States and China could air their positions on the operation of the surveillance plane. China insists it violated Chinese airspace and sovereignty. The United States denies the allegations.

"I'm encouraged because there has been movement,'' Powell said after an American diplomat met with the Navy crew of 21 men and 3 women on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

The U.S. Ambassador, Adm. Joseph Prueher, has met several times with the Chinese assistant foreign minister Zhou Wenzhong "and there has been movement in the discussions and negotiations,'' Powell said.

"We are encouraged at this point and those discussions continue,'' he said at the State Department an hour after Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. defense attache in Beijing, briefed President George W. Bush on his hour-long meeting with the crew.

"All of the crew members were in fine shape,'' Powell said. "They are in good health. They are in high spirits. Their morale is good.''

Bush and Sealock spoke for about 10 minutes, and the president "was very heartened'' to hear the crew was in good condition, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Bush told Sealock, "You are doing a great job for the country and their loved ones,'' Fleischer said.

"The president is pleased with what is taking place, but he is cognizant of the fact that work does remain'' to secure the crew's release, Fleischer said.

Asked if the United States had insisted on the crew's release, Powell said: ``We are in very intensive discussions and negotiations and exchanging ideas and papers, and there has been movement. But that's as far as I'd like to go right now.''

Powell's glowing account of the condition of the crew, held by the Chinese since the plane made an emergency landing Sunday after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter, appeared designed both as an assurance to their families and as a gesture to their captors.

While Powell did not specify what mechanisms were under discussion to free the service men and women, several administration source said under discussion was using an agreement signed by the two countries in 1998 to strengthen military maritime safety.

The agreement provides for investigation of incidents by a commission. China could thereby claim the United States had implicitly conceded wrongdoing with use of the surveillance plane, while the Bush administration could continue to maintain the crew did nothing illegal.

While demanding immediate release of the Americans, the Bush administration had insisted after an initial visit by U.S. diplomats that they be granted "unfettered'' access to the Americans. Powell said China had consented and another meeting was set for Saturday.

"They are receiving catered food from outside, so the Chinese are taking good care of our men and women,'' Powell said.

"I think you'd feel proud, they looked good,'' Powell quoted Sealock as telling Bush.

Earlier Friday, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer expressed optimism that a resolution of the crisis, now in its sixth day, was within grasp after what he called ``another night of continued intense diplomacy.''

"`The president believes we are moving forward,'' Fleischer said, adding that the release of the crew had become the main focus of the talks.

Asked why the White House was freshly optimistic, Fleischer cited "the tenor of the diplomatic discussions.''

It was the second straight day of cautiously optimistic reports from U.S. officials who had been frustrated in their initial attempts to establish significant negotiations with China over the collision of a U.S. surveillance plane with a Chinese fighter jet. China has demanded an apology. Bush has refused, though he expressed regret for the first time Thursday over the death of the Chinese pilot.


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