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U.S. surveillance plane lands in China after collision with fighter

EP-3 maritime patrol aircraft
The U.S. Navy says the EP-3 aircraft was involved in a routine surveillance mission  

HONOLULU, Hawaii (CNN) -- A U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane made an emergency landing in China after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet sent to intercept it, U.S. officials said Sunday.

The EP-3 Aries, an electronic surveillance aircraft with a crew of 24, landed on the Chinese island of Hainan after the collision, said Lt. Col. Dewey Ford, a spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. None of the crew was injured, he said.

Chinese officials had no immediate comment on the incident.

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Details of the EP-3 aircraft
 

"Our immediate concern is to make sure the crew is in good shape, and it looks like they are," Ford told CNN.

He said a Chinese F-8 fighter sent to intercept the aircraft had bumped the U.S. plane in the process. The collision appeared accidental, he said.

"They made contact, and there was enough damage that our aircraft had to land in the People's Republic of China," Ford said.

The plane was based out of Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. Ford said it was over international waters when the incident occurred about 9:15 a.m. Sunday (8:15 p.m. EST Saturday).

U.S. officials have communicated their concerns about the incident to the Chinese Embassy in Washington and through the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

"We expect the government to respect the integrity of the aircraft and have the crew's safety and well-being in mind," Ford said.

Hainan, where the aircraft landed, is about 400 miles (640 kilometers) southwest of Hong Kong and about 200 miles (320 kilometers) east of the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. There was no word on what happened to the Chinese aircraft involved in the collision.

Ford said surveillance flights like the one Sunday morning are routine, and Chinese authorities should not have considered it threatening.

"We can say we know our aircraft was in international waters, so there was no reason to think that," he said.

Aviation analysts in Hong Kong told CNN the plane was likely equipped with highly sensitive equipment that could monitor electronic communications and aircraft movements well into the Chinese mainland.

The incident occurs as hard-liners in both countries are urging their governments to take a tougher line toward each other.

The Bush administration has tried to redefine the relationship between China and the United States from a "strategic partner" to a "strategic competitor," and is considering whether to sell destroyers equipped with the Aegis air defense radar system to Taiwan. A senior Chinese army officer recently defected to the United States, and Beijing is holding a Chinese-born U.S. resident accused of spying.

The White House told CNN on Sunday that President Bush has been briefed on the situation but referred further comment to the Defense Department. Bush was spending the weekend at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, also was at Camp David.

CNN White House Correspondent Kelly Wallace and Hong Kong Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.



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