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STANDOFF WITH CHINA: U.S. AIRCRAFT HELD

Visit With Crew OKd After Bush Offers 'Regret'

Standoff: U.S. diplomats today were to hold a second meeting with 24 Americans from the spy plane stranded in China. The moves come amid intensified negotiations.

April 06, 2001|HENRY CHU and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BEIJING — Amid a burst of intense diplomacy, the Chinese government today granted U.S. officials a second meeting with the 24 crew members of an American spy plane stranded since Sunday in southern China.

Hours after President Bush expressed regret over the loss of a Chinese fighter pilot in the midair collision that brought down the surveillance plane, U.S. diplomats here said the meeting with the crew would take place at 4 p.m. today, or 1 a.m. PDT.

The announcement came after talks this morning between U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher and officials at the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

It capped a flurry of diplomatic activity that saw Bush appear to soften the American position in sensitive negotiations with China and offer a symbolic gesture of sympathy from the highest level of the U.S. government.

"I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing, and I regret that one of their airplanes is lost," Bush said Thursday at a gathering in Washington of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "Our prayers go out to the pilot, his family."

The president stressed his desire to maintain good relations with China. "We should not let this incident destabilize relations," he said. "Our relationship with China is very important. My intention is to have good relations."

To press home the point, he said the United States was working "all diplomatic channels" to resolve the standoff that began Sunday when a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet collided, causing the Chinese craft to crash into the sea and the American plane to make an emergency landing in southern China.

A quickened pace of negotiations contributed to a sense of tentative relief in Washington that both sides now shared a common will to resolve the standoff, after a frustratingly slow start to diplomacy. But U.S. officials expressed anger at reports that the 21 men and three women from the EP-3 were being interrogated by the Chinese. The officials also conceded that they were not yet optimistic about quickly finding a formula for winning the freedom of the crew.

"There are all kinds of potential roadblocks," said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity. "We're at a very delicate stage. There's a willingness to work it out, but the question is whether we can do it quickly. Those involved are not at this point able to say which way it's going to go."

The channels of communication were active on both sides of the Pacific. In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who is emerging as the main American intermediary, again met with Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi to discuss the standoff. Reports circulated in Washington that Armitage would soon fly to China, but the State Department said no such plans had been made.

In Beijing, Prueher held talks at the Foreign Ministry both Thursday and today, after initial complaints of limited access to Chinese officials.

"We're working on meetings, our communications are better, and both our governments are working pretty hard on trying to solve this," Prueher said Thursday.

One idea making the rounds in Beijing was for ostensibly neutral officials from a third country, or possibly the United Nations, to investigate the collision and mediate the dispute. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said the incident is a matter for the U.S. and China to resolve themselves.

Responding to American anger over the revelation that the crew had been questioned, Sun told reporters that Chinese officials had a right to do so.

The crew members "have caused this air collision incident, and they also entered illegally into China's airspace," he said. "It is fully natural for competent authorities in China to question them about this incident."

Although the pace of diplomacy has accelerated, both countries actually dug in their heels Thursday with their tough public positions.

Despite Bush's conciliatory expression of regret, the president asserted bluntly that the time had come for the crew to be released. "The Chinese have got to act, and I hope they do so quickly," he said. "Our prayers are also with our own servicemen and women."

The White House insisted that it has no intention of ceding to China's demand for a formal apology. American planes have "the right to fly in international airspace, which is why the United States, as we have said repeatedly, did nothing wrong," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.

In Santiago, Chile's capital, Chinese President Jiang Zemin again demanded a full apology. "I have visited many countries, and I see that when people have an accident, the two groups involved, the two parts, always say excuse me," said Jiang, who was on the first stop of a Latin America trip.

The Bush administration and congressional officials expressed frustration at what they characterized as the unrealistic scope of Chinese suggestions for settling the standoff.

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