Near-miss preceded plane collision, Pentagon official says
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Chinese fighter passed as close as 3 feet to a slow-moving U.S. spy plane before the two craft collided, sending the Chinese jet into the sea and the U.S. plane to an emergency landing in China, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.
The 24-member crew of the Navy EP-3 has been detained in China since the April 1 incident.
U.S. diplomats met for the second day in a row on Tuesday with the U.S. personnel -- also the second in a row without meeting first with local Chinese officials.
Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock again headed the U.S. delegation to a 40-minute meeting, the fifth since the incident over the South China Sea.
Sealock told reporters after the meeting that the crew members were in good health, getting regular exercise and reading English-language newspapers while U.S. and Chinese diplomats negotiated to end a stalemate over the crew's fate.
The United States and China could not agree on specific wording of any statement to end the standoff. Tensions appeared to rise on Tuesday, with patience on both sides appearing to wear thin.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that no meetings were held on Tuesday between Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
"We're ready to talk to the Chinese whenever they are ready," Boucher said Tuesday in Washington.
Bush, welcoming Jordan's King Abdullah II to the White House, acknowledged that "diplomacy sometimes take a little longer than people would like."
"I urge the Chinese to bring resolution to this issue," he said. "It's time for our people to come home."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who helped win the release of three American soldiers captured in Yugoslavia in 1999, offered his assistance in the negotiations, but Bush's administration politely declined, saying it would continue to pursue its diplomatic efforts to end the stalemate.
China: U.S. 'must apologize'
But as the confrontation entered its tenth day, neither side appeared ready to make any concessions, with Chinese officials firmly repeating their statement that they did not accept U.S. expressions of "regret" for the loss of the Chinese fighter pilot, Wang Wei.
"The United States must take a more cooperative and pragmatic attitude, it must take responsibility, and it must apologize," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said.
The United States has pointedly refused to apologize for the collision, saying the crew of the EP-3 did nothing wrong. But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Monday that his government was "sorry" for the loss of life, and President George W. Bush sent a letter of regret to Wang's wife.
Such regrets, Sun said, were a step in the right direction but did not go far enough.
At the same time, Bush warned that a protracted quarrel could irreparably harm U.S.-China relations.
"Every day that goes by increases the potential that our relations with China could be damaged," the president said before a meeting of his Cabinet on Monday.
Behind the scenes, China has rejected the third U.S. draft of a letter designed to end the standoff, U.S. officials in Washington told CNN Monday. But, the officials said, a fourth letter is being drafted and would soon be sent to Chinese officials.
Meanwhile, a senior Pentagon official told CNN that the collision between the Chinese F-8 and the U.S. Navy EP-3 came on the Chinese pilot's third pass of the Navy plane -- and that the Chinese pilot had approached at a 45-degree angle twice before, passing as near as 3 to 5 feet from the American plane.
The Chinese jet clipped the Navy plane's left propeller with its tail, knocking the EP-3 off autopilot and sending it into a 5,000 to 8,000-foot plunge before the pilot could level his craft, the official told CNN.
The Chinese plane ditched into the South China Sea and the U.S. plane limped 100 kilometers to a nearby Chinese air force base at Lingshui on Hainan Island's south coast, where it landed and the crew was taken to the provincial capital, Haikou, in the island's north.
U.S. officials said the accident severely damaged the surveillance plane, knocking off its nose cone and severely limiting the plane's maneuverability either up and down or right and left.
Earlier, U.S. officials had disputed the Chinese contention that the Navy plane had abruptly changed course, causing the collision. Such a move would have been impossible while on autopilot, the officials said.
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