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U.S., China Dig in Over Spy Plane; Crew is Visited

WASHINGTON, Apr 4, 2001 -- (Reuters) U.S. diplomats were allowed their first direct contact on Wednesday with 24 members of an American air crew held in China, but the meeting did little to herald a quick end to the spy plane standoff.

Chinese officials permitted the visit two days after the U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft made an emergency landing on the island of Hainan following a collision with a Chinese fighter jet. All 24 crew members were reported to be in good health.

Beijing offered no hope of early freedom for the the crew, which included three women and eight code-breakers, and said publicly that it held Washington responsible for the incident, which left the Chinese F-8 fighter pilot missing and presumed dead.

The United States ruled out an apology despite China's demands and for the first time referred to its crew members as having been "detained."

"I have heard some suggestions of an apology. But we have nothing to apologize for. We had an emergency," Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on a flight to Washington from Key West, Florida.

Asked if the crew members were hostages, Powell said: "I'd prefer the word, they have been detained, and to some extent I can call them incommunicado."

Underscoring tensions on both sides of the Pacific, President George W. Bush demanded the release of the crew and the plane. He said future U.S.-Chinese relations were at stake.


"This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries," Bush said in a brief statement in the White House Rose Garden. "To keep that from happening, our service men and women need to come home."

Bush said he had given the Chinese government time to "do the right thing" and return both the crew and the plane. "But now it is time for our servicemen and women to return home and it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane."

The plane was packed with high-tech eavesdropping equipment sure to interest its unexpected Chinese hosts, and a U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, said satellite images showed "the Chinese working on the airplane, taking a wrench to it, fooling around with it, examining it, tinkering with it."

The U.S. ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, said on CNN that he was "extremely confident" that the crew was "going to come back." "We're just talking about how soon, and we're looking for a speedy release rather than one that's protracted," he said.

The House of Representatives, with an eye on the current meeting in Geneva of the UN Commission on Human Rights, voted 406-6 to condemn China's human rights record, which some lawmakers linked to the plane problem.

The confrontation "only underscores anew how harsh the policies are by this Beijing dictatorship," New Jersey Republican Representative Chris Smith said. Democratic Representative Tom Lantos of California rejected the idea of postponing the resolution until the U.S. crew left Hainan, calling it "singularly unacceptable to be intimidated by the current situation on that island."


In his first comments on the incident, Chinese President Jiang Zemin demanded that the United States halt all surveillance flights near the Chinese coast.

"We cannot understand why the United States often sent its planes to make surveillance flights in areas so close to China," Jiang said.

"And this time, in violation of international law and practice, the U.S. plane bumped into our plane, invaded the Chinese territorial airspace and landed at our airport."

The EP-3, a four-engine turboprop plane, is used for eavesdropping. It collects radio, radar and other transmissions from ships or military posts on land, sweeping up communications and data from like a vacuum.

It was unclear how much of the secret data or gear the crew might have destroyed before the plane touched down on Chinese soil.

"This airplane is basically just stuffed with electronics," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy organization. "Short of blowing up the airplane, there's unavoidably a limit as to what they could destroy."

The world watched with growing interest as Beijing and Washington faced off over the affair. Asian nations in particular were paying close attention to the saga.

"Very seldom do other countries get involved when the elephants are pitted against each other," said Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, stressing that Manila maintained a "neutral" stance over the affair.

Close U.S. ally Japan said good relations between Washington and Beijing were vital for the Asia-Pacific region and urged a speedy resolution.

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