Bush reports diplomatic progress in bringing crew home
HAIKOU, China (CNN) -- After several rounds of mixed signals, U.S. diplomats met Friday with the 24 crew members from the U.S. surveillance plane held by China, finding them in good health and spirits.
During a speech in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. President George W. Bush said U.S. authorities are "working hard to bring them home through intensive discussion with the Chinese government and we think we are making progress."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is quietly making contingency plans to bring the crew home. Officials say most likely a civilian aircraft will be chartered to fly to a civilian airport on the Chinese island. (More on Pentagon plans to return crew.)
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner said talks between U.S. and Chinese officials "are going very well" and that the two countries' representatives were drafting a letter that will contain the views of both sides.
The letter will not include an apology, he said, but expressions of regret made earlier in the week by Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell will be "embraced in the letter."
Aviation experts from both countries will then meet to assess what happened in the accident that caused a Chinese F-8 fighter jet to crash into the ocean and led the Navy reconnaissance plane to make an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan last Sunday. The Chinese pilot has not been found.
"At that time, hopefully, we can give the United States, China and the world a better understanding of this accident, which involved, regrettably, a loss of life," said Warner after attending a briefing by Pentagon, CIA and State Department officials.
The letter will contain the "final expressions concurred on by the respective heads of state," he added.
Letter is integral to 'meeting of the minds'
Warner said it was up to Bush to discuss when the letter would be released, when the meeting would take place, "and hopefully, early return of our crew."
He called the letter "an integral part ... of the meeting of the minds of our two governments" about the accident.
Asked whether the letter would contain concessions, he said, "I wouldn't say concessions. I would say meeting of the minds."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he could not confirm that a letter was being drafted. "I don't have anything to say on what Sen. Warner might have said," he said.
Last December, the United States sent a demarche -- an exchange at top diplomatic levels -- to the Chinese complaining about several instances last fall in which airplanes from the same Chinese unit involved in Sunday's accident came too close to U.S. reconnaissance planes, Warner said. The demarche asked that China "cease and desist," he added. "Regrettably, it did not."
Earlier Friday, Powell said discussions with the Chinese are "moving forward. We are in very intensive discussions and negotiations and exchanging ideas and papers and there has been movement, but that's as far as I'd like to go now."
Powell said he was encouraged "because there has been movement, and because we are exchanging rather precise ideas as to how to bring this to a conclusion."
No Chinese attend 2nd crew meeting
Powell said Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, who headed the U.S. delegation on Hainan, told Bush the crew members are in "fine shape, good health, they're in high spirits, their morale is great."
They are residing in Chinese officer quarters in clean, well-lit rooms, are served catered food, and have all the provisions they need, Powell said. "The Chinese are taking good care of our men and women."
The three women are bunking together. With the exception of the aircraft commander, who has his own room, the men are sleeping two to a room.
At Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state, where the crew is based, Gov. Gary Locke met with family members of the detained crew. He said the family members have conveyed messages to their loved ones through the diplomats on Hainan.
"Everybody simply wants to be reunited with their family members, their loved ones," Locke said.
Locke said several relatives of the detained crewmen expressed sympathy to the family of the missing Chinese pilot.
"They just wanted the Chinese to know and the family of the Chinese pilot to know that they care about that family as well," said Locke. "And they're all families, whether you're Chinese or American, people are concerned about their loved ones."
Powell said the Chinese had agreed to further visits "on a regular basis until this matter is resolved." The next visit will take place Saturday, he said.
Sealock said the Friday meeting lasted about an hour.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said no Chinese officials were present at the meeting. That was not the case in their first meeting on Tuesday.
At a joint news conference immediately after Friday's meeting, both sides made brief, polite statements. The director of Hainan's foreign affairs office reiterated the Chinese contention that the American spy plane illegally intruded into Chinese air space. He added that China's investigation is not complete, but that the crew's second meeting with U.S. embassy and consular officials had been allowed for humanitarian reasons.
Authorities also released Friday a picture taken of several of the crew members,apparently wearing their flight suits, seated at long tables in a large room. They appear unharmed and in good health. (More on the crew photo.)
The 24 servicemen and women have been held since their plane made an emergency landing Sunday at the military airfield on Hainan after colliding with a Chinese F-8 fighter.
The pilot of a second F-8 Chinese fighter said Friday the collision occurred when the U.S. plane veered into the Chinese jet.
At the Pentagon, Adm. Craig Quigley said there is a mechanism in place that could be used if the United States and China decide to conduct a joint investigation of the incident.
An agreement with the Chinese was signed January 20, 1998, by then-Defense Secretary William Cohen, that would set up a maritime commission.
A meeting of the commission had been set for late April. "We could just move it up," Quigley said.
Chinese pilot describes collision
Also Friday, Chinese television broadcast an interview with Zhao Yu, the pilot of the second plane involved in tracking a U.S. surveillance plane off China.
He blamed the U.S. spy plane for the collision that sent the Chinese fighter and its pilot, Wang Wei, plunging into the ocean.
"Our planes were on the inner side of Hainan and the U.S. plane was on the outer side," Zhao said.
"Two minutes later, the U.S. plane suddenly swerved at a wide angle toward our direction and collided over the plane Wang Wei was flying. I saw the nose and left wing of the U.S. plane bump into Wang Wei's plane, and the left outer propeller of the U.S. plane's left wing smashed the vertical tail surface of Wang Wei's plane.
"The U.S. side is fully responsible for this collision. It was directly caused by the U.S. plane veering at a wide angle toward our plane, making it impossible for our plane to avoid it," Zhao said.
Bush has little interest in assigning blame, Fleischer said. "He's focused on the diplomacy under way," the White House spokesman added.
The father of one of the U.S. crew members told CNN he was heartened by the second meeting. "It's very encouraging," said John Bensing, father of Ensign Richard Bensing.
Asked whether he thinks the United States should simply apologize, the father told CNN, "I don't think an apology is in our best interest."
Chinese television has not broadcast Bush's expressions of regret made Thursday about the incident, though it has aired Powell's similar comments made earlier in the week.
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