Chinese board U.S. plane, take gear
HONG KONG, China -- Chinese military officials have boarded a grounded U.S. surveillance plane and removed equipment from it despite U.S. protests.
In a signal that a standoff between the two nations is not likely to end soon, Pentagon sources told CNN on Tuesday that China had begun removing sensitive eavesdropping equipment from the plane.
They added that this did not bode well for getting the plane back soon.
The United States considers the plane sovereign territory that should not be boarded by Chinese soldiers.
Pentagon officials also said that if China does not release the 24 crew members soon, it is hard not to consider them hostages.
The fate of the U.S. crew members, now in their third day of captivity on the Chinese island of Hainan, has yet to be determined.
U.S. officials are preparing to meet with the crew in the Hainan Island capital of Haikou. The crew were last heard from shortly after the emergency landing Sunday on Hainan, following a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter, one of two that had been trailing it.
A U.S. official has said the next several hours -- into Tuesday evening Washington time -- would be critical in determining the course of the standoff, and whether it would cause any lasting damage to U.S.-China relations.
"Our people need to see the crew and need to see them soon," this official said.
President George W. Bush on Monday demanded immediate access to the crew and the return of the top-secret surveillance aircraft.
China says it is the 'victim'
In its defense China said on Tuesday it is the "victim" in the spy plane standoff.
China has asserted a right to inspect the sophisticated aircraft and called on the United States to end surveillance flights off its coast.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said China had every right to examine the incident because the U.S. spy plane "rammed a Chinese plane in the air," then entered Chinese air space without permission and landed on a Chinese airport.
China has also accused the U.S. EP-3E plane of veering into one of two F-8 fighters in the interception mission 60 miles south of Hainan in international air space.
"We have sufficient evidence," Jiang told the visiting Prime Minister of Qatar, Abdullah Bin Khalifa Al-Thani.
The United States must "bear full responsibility," the official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.
Jiang said the United States should stop such flights, saying this would be "conducive to the development of the China-U.S. relationship."
Navy planes routinely fly off China's southeastern coast to monitor military activity, especially any that might threaten Taiwan, and they often are shadowed by Chinese fighter planes.
The United States says the collision was an accident and the plane was on a routine surveillance mission in international air space.
The Bush administration says it has no plans to apologize to China and is playing down Beijing's call for an apology, a U.S. official said. Jiang's comments intensify the verbal skirmish between China and the U.S., which has further strained relations between the two.
U.S. president George W. Bush has already complained about the lack of information flowing from China and has demanded the immediate return of the plane and its crew. (Transcript of Bush's remarks)
Meanwhile, three U.S. warships have been ordered to move out of the South China Sea area after U.S. officials said China had rejected offers of help to locate the missing Chinese fighter pilot.
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 U.S. ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher.
Five 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 U.S. propeller-powered plane, roughly the same size as a Boeing 737.
The crew of the stricken spy plane has been in Chinese custody since the collision, which occurred over the South China Sea about 100km southeast of Hainan Island.
Reports have said the U.S. crew was taken off the plane, with a Chinese source telling CNN they were being held individually, but did not say where or under what conditions.
President Bush has said he was "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."
The U.S. ambassador to China, Adm. Joseph Prueher, said earlier he believed Chinese officials had been "all over" the U.S. plane, which is a potential intelligence treasure trove. (More on the equipment)
He said the crew was trained to destroy sensitive materials in the event of an unplanned landing, but it was unclear how successful they might have been.
"We think that they, at least, started on some destruction of the material on the aircraft," he said.
Military analysts say the plane could still reveal secrets about what kind of information the U.S. military is collecting and how that data is processed.
Slow response not unusual
U.S. officials are growing increasingly frustrated as the hours drag by without contact with the crew, last heard from shortly after they landed in Hainan when they radioed that armed Chinese soldiers were boarding the plane.
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.
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 also opposes Bush's advocacy of a missile-defense system and has adamantly opposed Taiwan's request to the United States for the sale of four destroyers equipped with the Navy's most advanced anti-missile radar system. Bush was nearing a final decision on the sale of the destroyers and other military hardware to Taiwan and was expected to announce his decision within a few weeks.
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