U.S. team heads to China to inspect Navy plane
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A team representing the Pentagon was on its way to China on Sunday night after Beijing said it would allow them to examine the damaged surveillance plane it has held for four weeks.
The U.S. ambassador to China, James Prueher, said a U.S. inspection team was en route to Honolulu Sunday night and could arrive at Hainan Island Tuesday at the earliest.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said the "small technical assessment team" would have five or six members, but she could not say what the makeup of the team was or whether it included non-military officials.
Earlier, China's state news agency Xinhua said the Chinese investigation of the incident was complete, so "the Chinese side has decided to allow the U.S. side to inspect its plane at the Lingshui Airport."
Xinhua said the U.S. government would consider paying China to settle the dispute, but Vice President Dick Cheney said any payment would be to reimburse China for moving the damaged plane.
"In terms of transportation -- barge, cranes, whatever is required to get it back out -- that is legitimately something we think we ought to pay, but it's not anything beyond the costs associated specifically with the recovery of the aircraft," Cheney told "Fox News Sunday."
Cheney said the four-engine turboprop was damaged too badly to be flown off the airfield on the Chinese island of Hainan, where its crew made an emergency landing April 1 after a collision with a Chinese fighter shadowing them over the South China Sea.
The announcement by China was made at the beginning of a seven-day national holiday and came as a surprise to observers. It did not say when the inspection would take place, how extensively U.S. inspectors will be able to probe the spy plane or whether it would be returned.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, a member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said the Chinese should return the plane quickly and "without cost" for the sake of better ties with the United States.
"I suppose they could show that it cost them something to keep the plane there, but ... if they're really interested in good relations with us, they won't make this into an airplane servicing contract, but they'll return the plane," he told NBC's "Meet the Press." "It will build some good will here and we can go on and try to manage our relations peacefully."
China released the plane's 24-member crew 11 days after they landed on Hainan, after the Bush administration said it was "very sorry" for the death of the Chinese pilot in the collision and for the crew landing on Hainan without clearance from Chinese controllers. U.S. officials have said the Chinese pilot's actions led to the accident.
The Chinese have said the United States should accept responsibility for the incident. They also demanded an end to U.S. surveillance flights off its coast, but the Bush administration says it will continue the flights, which are conducted in international air space.
The crew attempted to destroy the aircraft's sensitive electronics and erase the data it collected before landing, and Cheney said he did not know whether the Chinese had been able to learn any U.S. secrets from the damaged plane.
"I would assume they got something," Cheney said. "Certainly, the hardware's left, even if a lot of it is destroyed," he said.
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon contributed to this report.
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