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China combs sea for missing pilot

Chinese newspaper headline on the crash
Chinese newspaper headline: "U.S. surveillance plane rammed into a Chinese fighter jet" Tuesday, April 3  

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China continues to search for a F-8 fighter pilot believed to have parachuted from his aircraft after a collision with a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea.

The State-run Xinhua news agency reported Tuesday that almost a dozen ships and more than 20 aircraft had been combing the ocean about 100km south-east of Hainan Island, off the south coast of mainland China.

The search group has been operating around the clock since the F-8 fighter jet collided with the much larger, propeller-powered U.S. EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance plane on Sunday morning, Xinhua said.

So far the pilot, whose name is yet to be disclosed, remains missing.

Xinhua said the Navy and a sea rescue unit in Guangzhou in China's southern Guangdong province had dispatched the rescue fleet soon after the pilot ejected from his jet. It is not known at what speed or altitude the pilot was traveling when he ejected.

'Utmost effort'

Chinese Communist Party secretary Jiang Zemin on numerous occasions instructed the Navy and relevant departments to take "utmost effort" in organizing the search, according to Xinhua.

Xinhua said: "Jiang is extremely concerned about the safety of our parachuted pilot". However, it did not provide any further details about whether any debris from the plane or evidence of the pilot had been found.

Although Beijing has not openly labeled the incident as an accident, Xinhua said the collision was caused "by chance".

A Xinhua spokesman, He Dalong, said any country had the right to send its fighters to intercept foreign aircraft that has invaded its sovereign air space.

"This time our military plane followed the U.S. surveillance plane, and the two collided -- it was caused by occasional factors," He said on an online forum on the agency's website.

But he went on to blame the U.S. aircraft for causing the accident.

"The U.S. plane suddenly turned towards our jet, causing our military aircraft to crash, and the pilot went missing," He said.

The search for the pilot continues.

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Xinhua news agency - Chinese language
The Pentagon: Headquarters of the United States Department of Defense
U.S. Navy
Navy Fact File: EP-3E ORION (ARIES II) Aircraft
U.S. Department of Defense
Chinese Government Website - Chinese language
US Department of State - Home Page
Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the United States of America
Government Information Office, Republic of China

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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