Navy crew struggled to land severely damaged plane
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With one propeller gone, two of four engines severely damaged and a hole in the nose section, the crew of the U.S. Navy spy plane had to struggle mightily to get their craft down safely on a Chinese island, Pentagon sources tell CNN.
One defense source said the crew deserved a medal for bringing the EP-3 aircraft down in one piece.
The aircraft fell a few thousand feet before the pilots regained control, defense sources said, after colliding Sunday with one of the two Chinese F-8 fighters that were tailing it.
However, because the crew was probably focused on survival, they probably did not have time to completely destroy or disable sensitive data and encryption software in the 15 minutes between collision and landing.
A final radio transmission from the crew after landing said they were beginning the procedure of destroying and erasing computer tapes on the plane.
When U.S. diplomats on Tuesday met with the crew, they couldn't ask them how much of the procedure they completed because Chinese authorities were always present at the meeting.
It was the first face-to-face meeting between U.S. officials and the 24 servicemen and -women since the emergency landing over the weekend.
The diplomats later said the crew was being held two to a room in a military guest house on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea. The pilot is being kept by himself.
Bush: Time for Chinese to return plane
Meanwhile, President Bush warned China that not releasing the crew 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.
"We have allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing, but now it is time for our servicemen 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 servicemen and -women need to come home," the president cautioned.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, flying back to Washington from Key West, Florida, told reporters that "the Chinese have said they're (the crew) being protected, I don't know from what."
"In my judgment, they're being detained," he added. "They're being held incommunicado, under circumstances which I don't find acceptable."
Powell warned the current situation "is not good for relations" between Washington and Beijing.
"I think there is some damage right now, but it's recoverable," he said.
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.
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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