U.S. Defense Secretary: Chinese pilot harassed U.S. crew
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday that the pilot of the Chinese fighter jet that collided with a Navy reconnaissance plane on April 1 was deliberately harassing the U.S. crew.
"The F-8 pilot clearly put at risk the lives of 24 Americans," Rumsfeld said during a Pentagon news conference. "It was clear the pilot's intent was to harass the crew."
The Chinese pilot was killed and the crew of the crippled American aircraft detained after an emergency landing in China.
Rumsfeld said he didn't believe the Chinese pilot deliberately ran into the U.S. plane, calling the collision an "accident."
During the news conference, Rumsfeld released Defense Department video taken from a U.S. aircraft that showed what appeared to be the same Chinese aircraft that struck the EP-3 flying very close to the U.S. plane.
U.S. and Chinese officials were to meet in Beijing on April 18 to discuss the causes of the incident, the fate of the Navy EP-3 aircraft and how such accidents could be avoided in the future.
Ahead of the meeting and with the 24-member crew of the U.S. reconnaissance plane back in the United States, firsthand accounts of the deadly collision on April 1 -- and earlier close encounters with buzzing Chinese jets -- emerged.
Rumsfield said the U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane was flying straight and level on autopilot -- not turning, as the Chinese have asserted -- when the Chinese F-8 fighter approached rapidly from a 45-degree angle.
The Chinese jet passed just under the left wing of the U.S. plane, and then pulled up its nose to slow down, causing its tail to hit the EP-3's left outboard propeller, Rumsfield said.
The collision caused the jet to break up and debris hit the EP-3's nose cone, which in turn knocked out the inboard engine on the right wing, he said.
Photos show close passes
CNN obtained photographs of Chinese jets believed by Pentagon officials to have been taken by one of the just-released crew members and e-mailed home a few days before the accident to show how close Chinese pilots flew to U.S. planes.
Pentagon sources say that based on one of the jets' identification number and on the time when the photos were taken, one picture appears to be Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot killed in the April 1 collision.
Wang is missing and presumed dead. The Navy plane limped to China's Lingshui military base on Hainan Island, where the crew was detained for 11 days.
They were released on Thursday, after intense negotiations resulted in a letter to China from U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher saying the United States was "very sorry" for the loss of the pilot and that the Navy plane had landed in China "without verbal clearance."
Diplomat: Chinese version 'at odds' with facts
The letter fell short of China's insistence that the United States take full responsibility and apologize to the Chinese people for the accident. But a senior U.S. diplomat in Beijing told CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon that China's leadership may have been misinformed.
"I think that the leadership were presented with a set of facts that were at odds with what actually happened," the diplomat said. "They perhaps made their initial judgments based on those. And once we got into that, then people were reluctant to change the facts that they had initially been given."
U.S. officials said that evidence provided by the crew -- currently being debriefed in Hawaii before returning to the mainland United States for an official homecoming -- and supported by additional evidence leaves no doubt that the collision was caused by the Chinese pilot.
The debriefs were thought to be broken into three parts, according to former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman of the National War College: damage assessment, operational intelligence and military-to-military relations.
After the collision, the badly crippled U.S. plane dipped to the left and turned nearly upside down, dropping 5,000 to 8,000 feet, before Navy pilot Lt. Shane Osborn regained control.
Sources said Osborn considered ordering his crew to bail out, and then, after righting the plane, thought of ditching at sea. Finally, he decided he had a good chance of landing at the Chinese base 40 to 50 miles away.
U.S. officials said that Osborn's attempts to contact Chinese officials about his situation were unsuccessful, and he put the plane down without official permission.
Spy plane still in China
After the emergency landing, the U.S. plane was surrounded immediately by People's Liberation Army soldiers, who "made it clear they wanted the crew off the plane," according to the American diplomat in Beijing.
"Their guns were drawn and they could have forced their way in," the diplomat said. "They were motioning. They had loudspeakers."
He said the crew remained on the aircraft for about 15 minutes to complete a checklist aimed at preventing sensitive data from falling into Chinese hands and then got off the plane without a struggle. Pentagon officials said time did prevent the crew from completing the checklist, however.
"They did so in danger," he said "because the Chinese were trying to get them to stop completing their procedures."
The Navy surveillance plane is still on the tarmac at the Chinese base and U.S. officials want it back. The subject of the plane's return will be on the agenda in Beijing at an April 18 meeting between U.S. and Chinese officials -- as mentioned in the Prueher letter.
The Chinese also plan to press their demand that the United States end all surveillance flights near China -- a demand the United States says will not be met.
China claims airspace over the entire South China Sea as part of its territory, while the U.S. recognizes the international standard of 12 miles from the Chinese border.
The Navy plane was more than 12 miles from the coast at the time of the collision, the U.S, officials say.
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