Bush: No evidence U.S. plane caused collision
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday said U.S. representatives would adopt a "tough" stance in upcoming talks with China over the air collision between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft.
He made the comments from the White House just hours after the 24-member crew of the U.S. spy plane involved in the incident returned safely to the United States.
Speaking at the White House Rose Garden, Bush said the U.S. "did nothing to cause the accident" between a U.S. EP-3 spy plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet over the South China Sea on April 1.
Earlier Thursday, the 24-member crew of the spy plane arrived back in the United States when their C-17 transport touched down at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
"From all the evidence we've seen, the United States aircraft was operating in international air space in full accordance with all laws and regulations and did nothing to cause the accident."
Bush said U.S. and Chinese representatives would discuss the accident and related matters at a meeting on April 18.
"I will ask our United States representative to ask the tough questions about China's recent practice of challenging United State aircraft operating legally in international air space."
Bush also said he had spoken by phone with crew members of the impounded U.S. spy plane, saying that they represented "the best of American patriotism and service to their country. They did their duty with honor and with great professionalism."
The crew had been detained for 11 days on China's Hainan Island after their surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided.
'A great morning here in Hawaii'
"It is a great morning here in Hawaii," Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, said earlier as hundreds of cheering military personnel and civilians employees at the base greeted the returning fliers. "It's my privilege to welcome the return of this courageous crew."
The Navy EP-3's pilot, Marine Lt. Shane Osborn, led the 21 men and three women off the U.S. military C-17 transport plane -- the "Spirit of Bob Hope" -- that brought them to Hawaii on an eight-hour flight from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
"We're definitely glad to be back," Osborn said. "On behalf of Combat Reconnaissance Crew One, I'd like to thank you once again, and God bless America."
Osborn's parents, Doug and Diane Osborn, watched the crew's arrival from their home in Norfolk, Nebraska.
"He's always been a hero," Osborn's mother told CNN's Jeff Flock. "He couldn't believe when I told him (via telephone before the crew left Guam for Hawaii) there was going to be all this coverage."
Fargo read the crew a letter from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who said that the country "could not have had better representative of the ideals we value."
"You put your lives at risk .. so that the citizens of a grateful nation can live in peace," Rumsfeld said.
The Navy has dubbed the mission to bring the crew home "Operation Valiant Return."
In Hawaii, the crew will undergo two days of intensive debriefings, both on their actions before and after the April 1 midair collision and on what Chinese investigators asked them during their detention.
Then, on Saturday morning, the crew will board a flight to their aircraft's home base on Whidbey Island in Washington, where they can be reunited with their families. The Navy is offering free transportation to Whidbey for all the crew members' families -- and each member of the crew will be given a 30-day convalescent leave.
'Hungry for American food'
The first phase of the trip began late Wednesday when U.S. and Chinese officials agreed on the wording of letter -- in which the United States said it was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot and that the crippled U.S. plane had landed in China "without verbal clearance" -- that cleared the way for the fliers' release.
Phase two -- and the first leg on the crew's three-jump journey to the continental United States -- began early Thursday on a chartered, Continental Airlines Boeing 737 that flew to China's Hainan Island to pick up the American service men and women.
A flight attendant on the jet added that all the crew members were "hungry for American food." The crew reportedly ate steak, salad, mashed potatoes, cookies and apple pie after they arrived on the U.S. territory of Guam.
Guam Gov. Carl Gutierrez greeted the crew as they stepped off the plane.
"My first word to them was welcome to America and we are all very proud of you, and they said we are happy to be back on American soil," Gutierrez said. "More than words, you can feel the vibrations and feelings from these people, you can see the watery eyes."
Antonio Unpingco, Guam speaker of the Legislature, also greeted the crew.
"We just want to welcome you home, the people of Guam and the people of the United States are all praying for all of you guys," Unpingco recounted his greetings in a CNN interview. "We just give thanks to God that Guam is here to repatriate them as they come in on the first U.S. soil."
"Their feeling of relief was right there in their face," Unpingco added, "It's like their weight on their shoulder was taken off when they saw the American flag."
Not over yet
Although the tension has gone from the diplomatic confrontation between China and the U.S., both U.S. and Chinese officials said the issue was not yet resolved.
For the Americans, the next problem is the U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II spy plane still stranded on Hainan Island.
"This is one of the things that we are going to discuss when we meet with the Chinese on April 18. We consider it (the plane) American property, and we want it back," a U.S. spokesman said.
The Navy plane was flying a surveillance mission over the international waters of the South China Sea when it was intercepted on April 1 by a pair of Chinese F-8 fighters.
One of the jets swooped close to the Navy plane twice and then struck it on a third pass, Pentagon sources say. The Chinese jet crashed into the sea, and the Chinese pilot was lost.
Despite the use of the phrase "very sorry," the United States insists that it has not accepted responsibility for the incident nor agreed to cancel its intelligence flights off China's coast -- both of which China demanded.
The issue of the surveillance flights is also likely to be on the agenda for the April 18 meeting, which was also part of the agreement that led to the EP-3 crew's release. U.S. officials emphatically denied that they had made any other concessions.
"No other issues ever entered the discourse," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said after the crew left China.
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