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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
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
"`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.