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China grants U.S. access to spy plane crew

Defense attache Neal Sealock, left, and Naval attache Bradley Kaplan of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing at a hotel on Hainan Island  

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Warships leave

Diplomats waiting

No word

'No jurisdiction'

Assistance offered

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HONG KONG, China -- Two U.S. diplomats are traveling to Hainan's capital, Haikou, where Chinese officials have told them a meeting will take place with the 24 members of the US EP-3 spy plane which made an emergency landing on Sunday.

The indication the meeting will apparently take place in Haikou indicates that the crew are no longer at the Lingshui airbase, where the plane set down. It is not clear whether they have spent their two and a half days in detention in Haikou or another location.

The third member of the Embassy's diplomatic negotiating team remains at the Gloria hotel on the island's southern tip, in the event of a change in circumstances.

Adm. Dennis C. Blair talks with CNN's Wolf Blitzer about the U.S. Navy surveillance plane in China

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graphic U.S.-China Collision: A diplomatic solution
 • About freighter returning EP-3
 • Look: Inside the EP-3
 • Facts about the EP-3
 • Map: Locating the incident
 • Big picture: High stakes
 • Classroom discussion guide
 • Historical US-China timeline
 • Whidbey arrival images
 • Crew speaks out
 • Crew's return images

Key events in U.S.-China relations since 1950
Map of Collision

Facts about EP-3 Aries II

The crew of the stricken EP-3E Aries II spy plane has been in Chinese custody since it was forced to make an emergency landing following a mid-air collision with an intercepting Chinese F-8 fighter.

The pilot of the F-8 was reported by Chinese media as having parachuted from his plane, but neither have been found since the incident.

The U.S. ambassador to China, who on Monday complained of having no access to the EP-3E or its crew, said early Tuesday afternoon that permission had finally been granted.

"We expect to see the crew tonight but we are not happy it has taken 60 hours [to gain access]," he said.

Warships leave

Meanwhile, three U.S. warships are on their way out of the South China Sea , having been told to remain in the area in case China accepted U.S. offers to help with efforts to locate and rescue the missing Chinese airman.

But U.S. officials said China had rejected offers of help to locate the missing pilot and the three destroyers have been ordered to move on.

Earlier Tuesday, Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer reported that a top Chinese general had told him Beijing would allow immediate consular access to the 24 crew of the plane.

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 told reporters.

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 that 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."

U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Lt Cmd Sean Kelly said he expected first contact would be made with the crew by late Tuesday. The U.S. scrambled a team of three diplomats to Hainan Island, off China's south coast, Monday afternoon. (More on U.S. reaction to the boarding)

Diplomats waiting

They have been holed up in a resort hotel a short drive from the military airbase where the crewmembers 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 Cmd 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.

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 on Monday, he called for a release of the plane "without any further tampering." (Transcript of Bush's remarks)

Chinese newspapers
The midair collision made news in Chinese newspapers Monday  

No word

There was no word on the location of the 24-member crew, which was last heard from immediately after the plane landed on a Chinese military base Sunday.

"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."

'No jurisdiction'

Prueher said China has 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.

Assistance offered

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.

The Chinese have blamed the United States for the incident and said their fighter crashed into the South China Sea. But U.S. officials said the Chinese fighter bumped into the Navy plane in international airspace and have called for the immediate return of the sophisticated reconnaissance plane and its crew.

The Chinese gave the following account of the incident: Two Chinese military planes were following the U.S. plane 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."

A search continued for the Chinese fighter pilot.

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The Pentagon
U.S. Navy
Navy Fact File: EP-3E ORION (ARIES II) Aircraft
U.S. Department of Defense
Government of China (in Chinese)
U.S. Department of State
Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the U.S.A.
Government Information Office, Republic of China

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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