Sources: Chinese board U.S. spy plane, remove equipment
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Chinese military officials have boarded a U.S. spy plane grounded in China and removed equipment from it despite U.S. protests, Pentagon sources told CNN on Tuesday.
The United States considers the plane, which is packed with sensitive electronic surveillance equipment, sovereign territory that should not be boarded by Chinese soldiers.
Chinese president Jiang Zemin has demanded the United States accept full responsibility for the collision of a Chinese fighter and a U.S. spy plane and halt all surveillance flights near China's coast.
His call came just before five U.S. diplomats arrived in the Hainan Island capital of Haikou where they are expected to meet the 24 crew members of a damaged EP-3E Aries II forced into an emergency landing early Sunday after hitting a Chinese F-8 fighter jet.
"We cannot understand why the United States often sent its planes to make surveillance flights in areas so close to China," the Xinhua news service quotes Jiang as saying.
"And this time, in violation of international law and practice, the U.S. plane bumped into our plane, invaded Chinese territorial airspace and landed at our airport."
The Chinese leader added that the U.S. must "bear full responsibility" for the mid-air collision. "We have sufficient evidence," Xinhua quoted him as saying.
The U.S. says the collision was an accident and the plane was on a routine surveillance mission in international air space.
Jiang's comments intensify the verbal skirmish between China and the U.S., with U.S. president George W. Bush having already complained at the lack of information flowing from China and demanding the immediate return of the plane and its crew. (Transcript of Bush's remarks)
Meanwhile, three U.S. warships are on their way out of the South China Sea. U.S. officials said China had rejected offers of help to locate the missing fighter pilot and the three destroyers have been ordered to move on.
The U.S. expects to make its first contact on Tuesday night local time with the spy plane's crew.
"We expect to see the crew tonight but we are not happy it has taken 60 hours [to gain access]," said the U.S. ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher.
The U.S. diplomats have arrived in the Hainan Island capital of Haikou, where Chinese officials have told them a meeting will take place with the crew of the propeller-powered US EP-3E Aries II, which is roughly the same size as a Boeing 737.
A spokesman for China's foreign ministry told an afternoon press conference that "for humanitarian considerations and to follow relevant agreements between China and the United States, China is planning to arrange the staff from the U.S. embassy and consulates to meet with the crew in the near future".
"In the meantime, I want to stress that the Americans are safe," he added
The indication the meeting will apparently take place in Haikou suggests that the crew is no longer at the Lingshui airbase, where the plane set down. The third member of the U.S. diplomatic negotiating team remains at the Gloria Resort on Hainan Island's southern tip, in the event of a change in circumstances.
The crew of the stricken EP-3E Aries II spy plane has been in Chinese custody since the collision, which occurred over the South China Sea about 100km southeast of Hainan Island.
Various reports say the U.S. crew was taken off the plane and separated and a Chinese source told CNN they were being held individually, 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 on Monday, he called for a release of the plane "without any further tampering."
According to a Chinese source on Monday, Chinese authorities boarded the U.S. military aircraft shortly after it made an emergency landing. The U.S. considers the plane sovereign territory, and as such should not be boarded by Chinese soldiers.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman responded by saying: "The plane we're talking about is not an ordinary aircraft, but a military reconnaissance plane that operated against rules and rammed a Chinese plane in the air space above the sea near China, then entered Chinese air space without China's permission and landed on a Chinese airport."
He added: "According to relevant Chinese laws and international law, China has the complete right to investigate this incident. It's the right that belongs to any sovereign nation".
U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Lt Cmd Sean Kelly told CNN he could not confirm the reports of the boarding.
President Bush said on Monday the Chinese response had been "inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice" and contrary to a desire for "better relations".
"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.
Earlier, Prueher expressed his frustration at the turn of events, saying China had no jurisdiction to hold the crew, which includes four women, or search the plane.
"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 Prueher.
Slow response not unusual
While U.S. officials have complained that China is slow in responding to diplomatic contacts, it's not unusual for China's bureaucratic system to take a long time to make decisions, especially where the military or national security concerns are involved.
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)
As debate continued to rage as to which nation was at fault over the crash, a source close to Beijing's foreign policy establishment told CNN's 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."
The collision comes at a sensitive time for US-China relations, ahead of the new Bush administration having to decide on possible arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
China says the American pilot caused the crash by suddenly veering into the Chinese jet, one of two sent up to follow the plane. But U.S. military authorities say it was more likely that the faster, lighter Chinese jet brushed against the slower, propeller-driven EP-3E.
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