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U.S. diplomats meet with plane's crew

Defense Attache Army Brig. Neal Sealock speaks to journalists after returning from a meeting with the detained U.S. air crew in Haikou, China, on Tuesday  

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U.S. seeking diplomatic solution

China removes equipment from plane

'Akin to a flying pig'


HAIKOU, China (CNN) -- U.S. diplomats on Tuesday made their first face-to-face contact with the 24 crew members from the Navy spy plane since it made an emergency landing on Chinese soil this weekend, and President Bush warned China that failure to release the crew members could hurt U-S.-Chinese relations.

"Our approach has been to keep this accident from becoming an international incident," Bush said in brief comments Tuesday outside the White House.

U.S. President George W. Bush calls for the return of a military plane and crew from China

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CNN's Lisa Weaver reports on U.S. diplomatic efforts to get plane and crew members released

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    "We have allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing, but now it is time for our service men and women to return home, and it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane," he said.

    "This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries. To keep that from happening, our service men and women need to come home," the president cautioned.

    U.S. seeking diplomatic solution

    U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the meeting between the U.S. diplomats and the plane's crew lasted about 40 minutes.

    "I hope this is the beginning of an end to this incident," Powell told reporters in Key West, Florida. But there was little optimism expressed by the U.S. officials in China about a quick release.

    Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, U.S. Embassy defense attache, described the crew members as being in good condition but said authorities were still working on their release. The U.S. delegation returned to its hotel without the crew members.

    "We're not at all clear why there's a delay involved here," Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said in Washington. "We would like to see the prompt, safe return of all 24 crew."

    Quigley said the United States wanted a diplomatic solution, "not a military one," to the standoff. "We really want to get our plane back," he said, repeating the U.S. view that the collision was an accident.

    China removes equipment from plane

    China, meanwhile, stepped up its rhetoric Tuesday, calling itself the "victim" in the matter. Chinese authorities also asserted a right to inspect the sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft, demanded an apology and called on the United States to end surveillance flights off their coast.

    Pentagon officials told CNN that the Chinese have removed some sensitive equipment from the plane, an indication, they believe, that China has no intention of surrendering the plane anytime soon. A White House official, however, called that report "conjecture," and Quigley said he could not confirm that account.

    A Pentagon official said the plane's crew had begun to destroy sensitive equipment before the plane landed on the Chinese island of Hainan, but the official did not know how far the process had progressed.

    Prior to Tuesday's meeting, the United States last heard from the crew of the Navy plane shortly after its emergency landing Sunday on the island, following the collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter, one of two that had been trailing it. Haikou is the provincial capital of Hainan.

    Quoting Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao dismissed U.S. statements that China has no right to inspect the Navy EP-3 plane, saying "the Chinese side has every right to deal with this." He stressed that one of the Chinese F-8 fighter jets had crashed into the South China Sea and that its pilot is missing.

    "The responsibility lies fully with the U.S. side," he said in Beijing. "China is the victim. The damaged aircraft is Chinese. The missing pilot is Chinese. It was the U.S. plane which entered Chinese air space in violation of relevant regulations and landed on Chinese territory without permission."

    Despite the strong words from China, the Bush administration has no plans to apologize to China for the collision, a U.S. official said. "We expect such rhetoric in the back and forth over this," the official told CNN.

    U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher said he believes Chinese officials have boarded the plane, as one Chinese source told CNN on Monday.

    "There is little doubt that they have been over the airplane ... We are sure that the crew is not on the airplane, and we have every reason to think that the Chinese have been all over the airplane," Prueher said in an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America."

    'Akin to a flying pig'

    A delegation of five U.S. officials arrived in Haikou, but only two attended the meeting with the crew, sources in China said. Some U.S. officials met with Chinese officials prior to the meeting with the crew. A sixth official remained in the city of Sanya, closer to where the Navy plane landed.

    Quigley declined to characterize the status of the 24 crew members, declining to call them hostages or detainees. "I don't understand the clarity of the term that should be used," he told reporters. "I would defer to the diplomats on that."

    Beijing was not accepting U.S. explanations.

    "Jiang said we cannot understand why the United States is flying so close to the Chinese side, and after bumping our plane, they violated international law, landing without our permission," Zhu said. "So the United States should stop such practices in Chinese airspace, so this doesn't happen again in the interests of Sino-U.S. relations."

    Zhu told reporters that China has the full right to inspect the plane. The United States considers the plane sovereign territory and, as such, should not be boarded by Chinese soldiers.

    At a news conference at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state, where the plane was based, the wing commander cast doubt on the Chinese account that the Navy plane had turned into the smaller Chinese fighter jet.

    "Those of you who have seen the aircraft flying around here realize it's akin to a flying pig," Capt. William Marriott said. "It does not maneuver well."

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    4:30pm ET, 4/16

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