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Pentagon Working Out Details of Crew's Return

Aired April 11, 2001 - 13:50   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: After the U.S.-China agreement to release the 24 Navy crewmembers held since their spy plane collided with the Chinese fighter jet 11 days ago, a commercial jet is en route to Hianan Island to bring them. And then the crew will be reunited with their families at the Whidbey Island in the Washington.

Still at issue, if China will return the U.S. spy plane in that collision and if the United States will continue those reconnaissance flights off of the China coast.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Pentagon has been working out the details of the crew's return. CNN military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre joins us with the latest -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, here is the timeline we have been able to put together from the Pentagon sources. It appears, at this point, that the chartered Continental Airlines plane will land in Haikou about 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time. That would be 6:00 a.m. in China.

Sources tell us that the plane will need to refuel to make sure it has enough fuel to get back to Guam. That will take about an hour or two. The crew will be loaded on the plane. Sources saying that the plane also is carrying some medical personnel, some psycologists, and some of the debriefers so some initial debriefing of the crew can go on as it travels back to Guam.

It will arrive in Guam at Anderson Air Force Base sometime after midnight Eastern Time, and then the crew will switch to a C-17 transport plane for about a 10-hour hop to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Now Pentagon officials are still very nervous about all of this until it takes place, until the crew is back on U.S. soil, so they are not talking much about other things such as whether or not -- if the United States will resume its reconnassaince flights, how soon and whether any have taken place since this accident began. Pentagon officials are going to reserve comment on any of those things until they're sure the crew is back on U.S. soil in Guam -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right. It won't be long. Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon. Now here's Lou.

WATERS: Today's agreement and its implications are certain to be dsicussed for sometime to come, and there's no time like the present. Joining us from Washington, Bill Triplett. Thank you.

BILL TRIPLETT, CHINA MILITARY EXPERT: Thank you.

WATERS: Bill -- rather President Bush has just survived what arguably is his first test in international relations. Some would call it successful, the crew's on its way home, but we have those on the right saying he was too soft on this business, those are the left saying he was too hardlined. Wnd where do you come down in that spectrum?

TRIPLETT: I come down very happy that our people are back. That's -- we have to start with that and, certainly, from the United States' standpoint, that's the first item of business, and you can't argue with success. They -- when the young people get on the plane in a few hours, we're all going to be very happy.

The next question, I think, is what happens when the United States wants to send out another one of these flights, because we don't have a real choice. We've got to send the surveillance flights out to find out what China is doing with its military modernization. Are we going to get buzzed again? Will they -- will we have another incident? And that's, of course, the next step.

WATERS: And what about this meeting on April 18th, to discuss the incident and that matter that you just mentioned, the return of the plane. Is that an important matter?

TRIPLETT: Well, certainly I think the return of the plane is important. The Navy is interested in -- in what's left of it, what was taken out and so forth. Some things they'll get from the debriefing of the -- of the crew. But the plane itself is valuable.

If they -- never get the plane back, the -- back, the Congress will have to appropriate money for a new plane, I mean, just for the openers, and that's several million dollars. So that -- that does matter.

But, again, to go back to the question of what the next step is, beyond the plane, the issue is: are we going to be able to continue these surveillance flights? And the reason is the Chinese have bought a whole bunch of new modern equipment, a lot of it russian, a lot of it was designed to kill Americans on aircraft carriers and so forth, and we want to see how well they can integrate that stuff into their existing forces.

WATERS: The question was asked earlier today what happens when the crew comes home and begins telling their story. How might that change the dynamic in what we perceive as what happened in this incident or accident, whatever you want to call it? Maybe China might change its tune when those stories begin to be told.

TRIPLETT: Sure. Of course, obviously, it depends on what the story is.

Yk, there are a lot of newspapers floating around in the Far East, some of them hysterical, about the tracer bullets being shot in front of our guys, or there was another story in which the second pilot wanted to shoot our 24 people down.

I think we have to focus on the fact that we came that close to having 24 dead Americans. That close. And -- and it was really a pilot error from the Chinese side.

So what happens when we go back out in the Far East again? Are we going to have people buzzed? Are they going to be back within three or four feet of our people? Are we going to have a really terrible accident and a bunch of dead Americans?

WATERS: And I hope we get a chance to talk again. Bill Triplett, China specialist...

TRIPLETT: Ty.

WATERS: ... with the U.S. Congress.

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