BEIJING — China permitted U.S. officials to meet early today for the third time with crew members of an American spy plane stranded on an island in the South China Sea, but the government held fast to its demand that Washington apologize for the midair collision that brought the aircraft down.
After waiting all day Saturday to be summoned for a visit with the 21 men and three women, whose plane made an emergency landing on Hainan island last Sunday after colliding with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet, two American diplomats finally were given access about 1 a.m. in China (10 a.m. Saturday PDT).
"I was able to validate once again their treatment, their spirits, their wellness," said U.S. Embassy military attache Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, one of the envoys, who said the meeting lasted an hour. "They understand the circumstances under which they are here.
"They very much appreciated the e-mails that they have been allowed to receive from home," he said. "They are all doing well. They are looking forward to going home."
The envoys were allowed to see only eight members of the crew, however, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed. That was one signal that negotiations for their release might not be going as smoothly as Washington had hoped. The eight were picked by the U.S. from a mix of ranks.
The meeting--which came after a three-hour discussion with Chinese officials of "ground rules"--marked the second time in two days that the U.S. had been able to see crew members, and many in Washington hailed that as a sign of movement toward a resolution of the weeklong standoff with Beijing over the return of the crew. The initial meeting took place Tuesday.
But in a contradictory sign, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, China's top foreign policy official, sent a letter Saturday to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declaring that U.S. statements of regret over the apparent death of a Chinese fighter pilot in the collision were insufficient.
"The U.S. statement on this incident so far is unacceptable to the Chinese side, and the Chinese people have found it most dissatisfying," the letter said, according to the official New China News Agency.
While "China hates to see the bilateral relations damaged by this incident," Qian wrote, a U.S. apology would be of "utmost importance in solving the problem."
So far, the White House has steadfastly ruled out such a step. The U.S. says it was not to blame for the collision over the South China Sea.
The damaged EP-3 reconnaissance plane and its crew have remained on Hainan island since they landed there last Sunday. The Chinese pilot involved in the accident, Lt. Cmdr. Wang Wei, who is said to have bailed out of his jet, is missing and presumed dead.
Wang's wife, Ruan Guoqin, wrote an open letter chastising President Bush for being "cowardly" and inhumane in refusing to apologize to China. The letter was featured prominently in the state-controlled Chinese media Saturday, in a continuation of the government's tough public rhetoric.
Ruan was shown on Chinese television weeping from the hospital bed to which she has been confined because of her grief, the media said.
"So far, my husband has not been rescued. But in this serious matter with irrefutable facts and the responsibility completely resting on the U.S. side, you are too cowardly to voice an apology," the letter said.
China's defense minister, Chi Haotian, visited Ruan in the hospital Saturday, the New China News Agency reported. Chi, a general in the People's Liberation Army--which some analysts say might be pushing for a hard government line and delaying a resolution--also said the U.S. would not be allowed to "shirk responsibility."
"The People's Liberation Army does not agree to it. The Chinese people don't agree to it," Chi said.
Despite that tough stance, which has both reflected and inflamed popular anger here, diplomatic activity continued Saturday in Beijing. U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher kept up what in the past three days has become a steady stream of meetings with officials at the Foreign Ministry.
"We are in good communication with the Chinese. We're negotiating," he told reporters. "It's in a sensitive stage, and I think we're making progress."
At Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, Bush was briefed throughout the day by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George J. Tenet. The administration tried to cast a positive light on the latest events, saying it did not view either Qian's letter or the delayed meeting between U.S. envoys and crew members as either setbacks or signals that the effort to win the crew's release would be further impeded.
There would be "no change" in the U.S. position in response to Qian's remarks, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.