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Pentagon denies spy plane deal agreed

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Pentagon has denied reports from Beijing that a deal has been reached on the return of the crippled U.S. Navy spy plane from the Chinese island of Hainan.

Spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley told CNN that no agreement had been made requiring the EP-3 aircraft be dismantled and shipped back to the U.S. in pieces.

Earlier Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao told reporters in Beijing that China had accepted such a proposal, apparently after it had been put forward by the U.S.

"We have not agreed to a method by which the plane would be removed from Hainan island," Quigley said.

However, he could not explain why the Chinese spokesman had announced that a deal had been reached.

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Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca Mackinnon: "It's really a symbolic issue"

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In the statement, Zhu said: "The U.S. side submitted a proposal to the Chinese side to take apart the U.S. aircraft and transport it back. The Chinese side has agreed to that and the two sides will continue to hold consultations on the technical aspects of the return of this aircraft."

He gave no further details other than to say that the two sides would continue to hold technical consultations on how to dismantle and remove the aircraft.

The EP-3 plane, which has been at the center of a terse diplomatic stand-off between the two countries, has been held at an airfield on Hainan since April 1.

The plane made an emergency landing at the airfield after it was involved in a collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

The pilot of the Chinese fighter was lost and despite an extensive naval search his body was never recovered.

Flight 'impossible'

On Sunday U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney said the damaged plane would probably have to be shipped out in crates.

Earlier U.S. technicians who inspected the plane in China concluded the plane could be flown home if it was repaired.

The collision damaged the EP-3's nose cone, its wing and at least two of its four propellers.

But China has consistently said it would not allow the plane to be flown out of the country, possibly trying to punish Washington for the incident by forcing it to destroy its aircraft in the process of retrieving it.

In Thursday's statement to reporters Zhu once again said that any proposal that the aircraft fly out was "impossible".

Diplomats say this impossibility is based on symbolic reasons -- China does not want to see the aircraft fly again over Chinese territory.

Earlier this month, an official from Heavylift Cargo Airlines told CNN the company had been contacted by the U.S. government about using a giant Antonov freighter plane to bring the spy plane home.

Vince Seeger of Heavylift Cargo Airlines said an inquiry had come from representatives of the U.S. government but no further action had been taken.

He said the United States was interested in having Antonov Airlines, a joint venture between Heavylift and Air Foyle, to provide an An-124 transport plane capable of carrying 120 metric tons to do the job.

Finger pointing

In the wake of the April 1 collision, both sides blamed each other for the incident with China demanding the United States apologize and stop conducting surveillance flights off its coast.

China detained the 24-member crew for 11 days before allowing them to return to the United States.

The crew's release came only after Washington said it was "very sorry" that the Chinese pilot had been killed and the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on Hainan without prior authorization.

The standoff over the crew and the row over the plane helped plunge Sino-U.S. relations to their lowest level since the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

China policy

But it has just been one of many thorny issues that have beset relations between the two countries as the new Bush administration sets out on a more assertive stance towards China.

In his four months of office, U.S. President George W. Bush has taken a series of steps that Beijing considers provocative.

 • The United States has promised significant arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

 • It has also allowed visits by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Meanwhile, it is widely thought the timeliness of the plane's return could determine a key U.S. vote on trade relations with China.

James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, has said he is optimistic the U.S. House of Representatives would vote to maintain normal trade relations this summer.

But he added the delay in returning the plane "does not help the process at all."

Bush has to notify Congress formally by June 3 of his intention to extend normal trade relations to China for another year.

Lawmakers critical of China are already planning to challenge that decision.



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