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US aircraft carrier may be deployed in South China Sea

WASHINGTON, April 16 (AFP) - A US aircraft carrier may soon be deployed in the South China Sea, where it could launch fighter jets to protect US reconnaissance flights off China's coast, navy officials told the Washington Post in a report published Monday.

Reconnaisance flights off the China coast were suspended after the collision between a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet on April 1. Those flights may resume as early as Thursday, in international airspace about 80 kilometers (50 miles) off the Chinese coast.

The addition of US warplanes could exacerbate the already frayed relations between Beijing and Washington following the collision, which killed the Chinese fighter pilot and led to an international incident when China detained the crew of the reconnaissance plane for nearly two weeks.

The 24 crew members of the EP-3 were released after Washington said it was sorry for the loss of Wang and for the emergency landing by its plane.

Washington has refused to issue an apology for the incident, which occurred in international airspace, and insisted that Chinese air force pilots were guilty of reckless flying.

US and Chinese officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Beijing to discuss the flights.

In deploying the aircraft carrier, the Kitty Hawk, to China the United States hopes to underscore its view that the spy flights are not acts of underhand espionage, but legal and overt movements though international airspace, said a Navy official in Washington.

The Chinese government says the flights come too close, but the United States says they are routine missions conducted in international airspace.

The USS Kitty Hawk, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan, and carries about 70 aircraft, could be ready to send up fighters to support the reconnaissance flights by mid-week, a Navy official told the daily.

Pentagon officials told the Post that if the White House approves, the Navy fighters would fly farther off the Chinese coast than the reconnaissance planes, perhaps 160 kilometers (100 miles) away.

The United States reportedly sends about 200 reconnaissance flights a year near China's coasts, a Chinese military official said.

The Chinese send up fighter aircraft to intercept about one-third of those flights, Pentagon officials told the Post.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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