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Plane crew safe, China assures U.S.

Adm. Joseph Preuher, the U.S. ambassador to China, speaks outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing early Monday
Adm. Joseph Preuher, the U.S. ambassador to China, speaks outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing early Monday  

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Chinese officials report 24 U.S. fliers are "safe and sound" after their reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter Sunday, the U.S. ambassador in Beijing said.

The U.S. Navy plane made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan after the incident, which occurred when China sent jet fighters to intercept the surveillance plane over the South China Sea. China said the fighter involved in the collision crashed, and it was searching for the pilot.

The Navy plane was on a routine surveillance mission over international waters, U.S. military officials said. It carried a crew of 24, including one Marine and one Air Force crewman. Chinese officials say the crew is "safe and sound, and that we'll get to see them soon," said Adm. Joseph Preuher, the U.S. ambassador in Beijing.

Key events in U.S.-China relations since 1950

"We've got some people on the way down there tomorrow. We'll continue to work hard both here and in Washington," Preuher told The Associated Press after meeting with China's vice foreign minister. "And it appears also the Chinese have lost an aircraft, and we're sorry that occurred."

But in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials were not sure whether the diplomats will get access to the crew members.

Preuher said he had spoken several times to Secretary of State Colin Powell about the matter, which comes at an awkward time in the U.S.-China relationship.

Last month, China's top diplomat, Qian Qichen, met with President Bush: Their meeting failed to resolve differences over the possible U.S. sale of destroyers equipped with the Aegis air defense system to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province; or China's opposition to U.S. plans to develop a national missile defense system.

Observers said the severity of the new incident will depend on how the Chinese respond.

"If the Chinese goof around and hold on to them, there could be a real firestorm tomorrow," Brookings Institution analyst Bates Gill said. "But both sides will try to play it down."

"The ball is in their court," he added. "Every passing hour, there will be heightened outrage."

One of the possible complicating factors, said Gill, could be lack of communication between the People's Liberation Army, which has control of the plane on Hainan, and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.

Gill said he believed the aircraft, an EP-3 Aries II electronic surveillance plane, would be a veritable "treasure trove" of interesting gadgets for the Chinese military. U.S. officials already have warned China they consider the plane "sovereign U.S. property" that cannot be boarded or seized.

"This could be another episode in a series of problems we are having in our relationship with China," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"They should not enter the aircraft or have access to any of the equipment on board. I think that is the first thing -- assurance -- we need from the Chinese," said McCain, a former Navy pilot and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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