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Rest of Spy Plane Leaves China

Asia: The dismantled Navy EP-3's departure wraps up a rocky chapter in Sino-U.S. ties. The aircraft may be rebuilt in Georgia.

July 04, 2001|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — The final pieces of an American spy plane that had been stranded for three months in southern China were packed up and flown out Tuesday, wrapping up a tempestuous chapter in Sino-U.S. relations.

A chartered Russian cargo plane picked up the remaining sections of the Navy EP-3 from Hainan island and took off for Honolulu, where it arrived about 12 hours later, U.S. military officials said.

The reconnaissance aircraft had sat on a Chinese military airstrip since April 1, after it was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan following a collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

U.S. technicians have been working for more than two weeks to dismantle the $80-million spy plane, which was too damaged in the midair crash to fly out under its own power. The disassembled EP-3 is bound for Georgia, where the U.S. military hopes it can be repaired and returned to service.

The EP-3's removal from China resolved the last issue from the April 1 collision, which sparked a tense diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Washington and dragged relations between the two powers to their lowest point in two years.

Each side accused the other of causing the accident, in which the pilot of the Chinese F-8 fighter jet died. The Beijing regime held the EP-3's crew on Hainan for 11 days and released the 24 men and women only after the Bush administration stated that it was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot and for the EP-3's unauthorized landing.

The damaged plane remained on Hainan, subject to fractious negotiations over its return, inspections by American technicians and extensive examination by Chinese military officers eager to learn its secrets, U.S. officials say.

Defense analysts suspect that China's People's Liberation Army reaped substantial intelligence from the hobbled EP-3, a sophisticated flying eavesdropper outfitted with equipment capable of intercepting fax and e-mail transmissions. The plane's crew did not have time to destroy all the sensitive data on board during and immediately after the craft's harrowing descent to Hainan.

The Chinese government ruled out allowing the propeller-driven EP-3 to be repaired and flown out under its own power.

Instead, 12 U.S. technicians from Lockheed Martin, the plane's maker, dismantled the mammoth craft--about the size of a Boeing 737 jet--piece by piece.

On Monday, some minor parts were flown out to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. On Tuesday, with the fuselage and other remaining sections on board, the Russian-built Antonov 124-100 took off from Lingshui airfield on Hainan at 4:45 p.m., U.S. defense officials said. It stopped briefly in Manila before continuing to Hawaii.

The EP-3 was originally based at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state. On April 1, it was on a surveillance mission out of Kadena along China's eastern coastline when two Chinese fighter jets arrived to track it. The EP-3 and the F-8 fighter were in international airspace when they collided.

Beijing alleges that the slow-moving EP-3 swerved into the path of the fighter, but Washington blamed the crash on reckless flying tactics by Lt. Cmdr. Wang Wei, the pilot who bailed out of his craft and was lost at sea.

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