China declines U.S. search offer
HONG KONG, China -- Three U.S. warships have been ordered to leave the South China Sea despite the crew of a stricken U.S. spy plane beginning their third day in the hands of Chinese officials.
The U.S. warships had been told to remain in the area in case China accepted U.S. offers to help locate and rescue a Chinese airman, missing since his fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane collided off China's south coast Sunday.
But U.S. officials say China has rejected offers of help to locate the missing pilot and the three destroyers have been ordered to move on.
The U.S., meanwhile, was awaiting permission to make its first contact with the 24 crew of the propeller-powered EP-3E Aries II spy plane.
In Canberra, Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said a top Chinese general had told him Beijing would allow immediate consular access to the 24 crew of the plan.
Downer told reporters that he spoke with Gen. Zhang Wannian, who is on a visit to Australia, early Tuesday.
Zhang is deputy chairman of the Communist Party commission that governs the army.
"He told me that the Chinese side would allow consular access to the Americans, immediately, consistent with diplomatic norms, and that this matter would be resolved through diplomatic means," Downer said.
As debate raged over which nation was at fault over the crash, a source close to Beijing's foreign policy establishment told CNN's Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam that after more than a day's deliberation, the authorities had concluded the collision was an "accident".
"The leadership's line is it should insist that all responsibilities lie with the American side - and that Beijing should use this incident to press Washington to stop sending spy planes near Chinese territory," the source said.
"However, the leadership has also decided this accident should not affect the long-term development of bilateral ties."
Awaiting first contact
U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Lt Cmdr. Sean Kelly said he expected first contact would be made with the crew by Tuesday afternoon. The U.S. scrambled a team of three diplomats to Hainan Island, off China's south coast, Monday afternoon.
They have been holed up in a resort hotel anear the military airbase where the crew members and their high-tech aircraft are being held.
Defying U.S. demands, Chinese authorities boarded the U.S. military aircraft shortly after it made an emergency landing early Sunday following a collision with one of their fighters, a Chinese source said Monday.
Lt Cmdr. Kelly said he could not confirm the reports of the boarding, which he earlier said would breach international regulations because the EP-3E is deemed sovereign U.S. territory. (More on U.S. reaction to the boarding)
The 24-member U.S. crew was taken off the plane and separated. They are being held individually, the Chinese source told CNN, but did not say where or under what conditions.
President Bush described himself as "troubled" by China's response to the incident and called for "immediate access" to the crew. Twice within an hour Monday, he called for a release of the plane "without any further tampering." (Transcript of Bush's remarks)
There was no word on the location of the 24-member crew, which was last heard from immediately after the plane landed on the Chinese military base.
"Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew, and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering," Bush said outside the White House, saying the Chinese response has been "inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice" and contrary to a desire for "better relations."
He repeated his call for a return of the plane and crew 40 minutes later during a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "We expect that plane to be returned to us," he said.
Earlier, the U.S. ambassador to China expressed his frustration.
"What is hard for us to understand well and hard for me to explain to Secretary (of State Colin) Powell is the inability to get a phone call through to the aircraft commander or to talk to the crew," said Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China.
"We are very eager to do that so we can reassure their families. ... those are the norms of international law, and as time goes by that gets to be a worse and worse situation."
Prueher said China had no jurisdiction to either hold the crew, which includes women, or search the plane.
A Pentagon official said Monday that the plane's crew had begun to destroy sensitive equipment before the plane landed in Chinese territory but the official did not know how far the process had progressed. (More on the equipment)
"This immunity precludes foreign search, boarding or seizure or detention of the aircraft without U.S. consent," he said in Beijing.
In Washington, administration officials sought to minimize the diplomatic fallout, choosing their words carefully in describing the situation. Bush met with his top national security advisers Monday to discuss the matter.
He offered U.S. assistance to help the Chinese locate their missing pilot and jet. "Our military stands ready to help," Bush said.
A former U.S. attache to Beijing said Chinese officials must not be short-sighted as they deal with the plane and its crew.
"I hope that Chinese officials would take into account that the future of the relationship is important and that they would allow access to the crew, and ensure that they do not intrude into the airplane," retired Navy Rear Adm. Eric A. McVadon said in an interview with CNN.
There has been some speculation that Beijing might try to keep the high-tech reconnaissance plane.
While the U.S. blamed the faster and more manouvrable Chinese fighter for the accident, China offered a different account.
According to China, their military planes were following the U.S. aircraft to monitor it.
The Chinese planes, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzo said in a statement Sunday, "were flying normally" about 60 miles southeast of Hainan Island, when "the U.S. plane suddenly turned toward the Chinese plane."
"The head and the left wing of the U.S. plane bumped into one of the Chinese planes, causing it to crash."
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