Powell: 'We regret' Chinese pilot's loss
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The top U.S. diplomat Wednesday offered regrets for the loss of a Chinese pilot in a collision with a U.S. spy plane.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said efforts at dialogue continued amid the four-day standoff over the spy plane and its crew. The plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter Sunday, whose pilot is missing and presumed dead in the South China Sea.
"We regret the Chinese pilot did not get down safely, and we regret the loss of life of that Chinese pilot," Powell said.
A senior Chinese official said Powell's statement represented "a step in the right direction" and was being evaluated by officials in Beijing.
Asked about the distinction between Powell's comments and the Chinese call for an apology, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "I think they're different. Let's leave it at that."
The White House said Wednesday that no apology was needed.
"The United States doesn't understand the reasons for an apology," Bush administration Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said at a news conference. "Our airplanes were operating in international air space and the United States did nothing wrong."
The U.S. electronic surveillance plane involved in the collision made an emergency landing in the Chinese island of Hainan, where its crew of 24 was being detained by Chinese officials. Search efforts continued Wednesday for the 33- year-old Chinese air force officer, Wang Wei, but China said he was now presumed dead.
Officials said the Navy EP-3 Aries II suffered more damage than originally thought, including propeller damage and the loss of its wing flaps and air speed indicator.
China wants the crew to remain while it investigates the incident, China's envoy in Washington said Wednesday.
"The Chinese side has every right to carry out an investigation. So the crew members are in China because the investigation is going on," Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi told CNN.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher that Washington bears "full responsibility" for the collision. Pentagon sources told CNN that sensitive data and equipment aboard the Navy plane was destroyed before the plane landed in China, but did not elaborate.
Tang told Prueher the United States had not taken responsibility for the incident and "has displayed an arrogant air, used lame arguments, confounded right and wrong, and made groundless accusations against China," Xinhua reported.
The agency quoted Tang as saying, "the Chinese people are extremely dissatisfied with this."
But White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters that the United States was declining China's request for an apology.
"The United States doesn't understand the reasons for an apology," Fleischer said. "Our airplanes were operating in international air space and the United States did nothing wrong."
Sino-U.S. ties threatened
Observers said Wednesday's meeting between Tang and Prueher fulfilled a Chinese desire to express its view of the incident directly to the ranking U.S. official in China.
Their meeting occurred shortly after Chinese President Jiang Zemin left for a tour of South America. Before leaving, Jiang called again for the United States to apologize for the incident.
"The United States must do something favorable to the smooth development of Sino-U.S. relations, rather than make remarks that confuse right and wrong and are harmful to relations," Jiang said, according to Chinese state-controlled media.
Powell told reporters Tuesday the United States had "nothing to apologize for," repeating the U.S. view that the collision was an accident that occurred in international air space.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, were pressing for a second meeting with the crew of the Navy plane. U.S. officials visited a store on Hainan to pick up toiletries and other items they hope to give the crew. They visited the crew for the first time on Tuesday.
The 24 crew members, including three women, were being kept two to a room at a military guest house -- except the pilot, who is being held alone. Powell said the crew was being "detained" and "held incommunicado under circumstances which I don't find acceptable."
While Tuesday's session did not secure the release of the crew, it did give U.S. officials their first information about the condition of the crew and the propeller plane -- which suffered damage to two engines -- and what happened in the minutes after the collision. A photograph released by the Chinese news agency Xinhua showed the plane missing its nose cone.
The Navy plane dropped about 8,000 feet within five minutes, Pentagon officials said. Because of the damage to the wing flaps, which prevented the plane from going low and slow, the pilot could not ditch the plane in the sea and had to attempt a landing, officials said.
Pentagon sources told CNN Tuesday that the Chinese had removed some equipment from the plane, but White House officials could not confirm that account.
"This is an intelligence loss any way you look at it," said Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Nebraska, a member of the House International Relations Committee. He said the crew's apparent destruction of sensitive equipment mitigated that damage, but it was still a coup for the Chinese.
Jan Berris, a U.S.-China relations analyst, said U.S. President George W. Bush administration has handled "this unfortunate incident" well by keeping public comments to a minimum.
"I think we've been very careful to try to make sure that we word all of our statements in a low-key manner," Berris told CNN. "President Bush has made himself available to make certain short statements. At the end of those statements he's walked away and not made himself available to ask questions that might accidentally increase the rhetoric on this."
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