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Powell sends personal letter to Chinese vice premier

Satellite image of the plane on Hainan runway from Space


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'Step in right direction'

Unrelenting message, escalating rhetoric

Request for new crew meeting

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A personal letter from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is the latest effort by the Bush administration to end the standoff with Beijing over the U.S. Navy plane and its crew being held by China.

Powell hand-delivered the letter to Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi during a meeting Wednesday evening. It was the second time in two days that the ambassador has met with senior officials at the State Department.

The letter is addressed to China's top diplomat Qian Qichen, whom Powell met a couple of weeks ago. In the letter, Powell appeals to the Chinese for the immediate release the 24 U.S. servicemen and women being held on an island in the South China Sea, U.S. officials said.

One senior State Department official told CNN the letter was aimed at bumping the issue higher up the chain of command within China, trying to get some urgent reaction from Beijing.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre reports on what is known so far about how the accident happened

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CNN's John King reports on the effects of the standoff on U.S.-China relations and Bush's political career

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CNN's Wolf Blitzer reports on China's demand for an apology from the U.S.

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CNN's Frank Sesno talks with the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. about the plane collision and detained U.S. crew

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    While the U.S. has expressed regrets for the midair collision that likely has ended the life of a Chinese pilot, Beijing appears to be holding out for an apology before it will release the plane's crew.

    Earlier Wednesday, Powell expressed regret for the "tragic accident" between a Chinese fighter jet and the U.S. military aircraft.

    "We regret that the Chinese plane did not get down safely and we regret the loss of the life of that Chinese pilot," Powell told reporters. "But, now, we need to move on. We need to bring this to a resolution."

    Powell's comments came after Yang repeated China's demands for an apology, describing China as "the injured party." He acknowledged that the incident occurred in international airspace, but he said the Navy crew lost immunity once the U.S. plane landed without permission in China. And he told CNN the crew will remain in China while an investigation into the matter continues.

    "This is a very serious incident, so the Chinese side has every right to carry out (an) investigation," Yang said. "The crew members are in China because the investigation is going on."

    'Step in right direction'

    The Navy EP-3 plane made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan on Sunday after the collision. The Chinese F-8 fighter jet crashed into the South China Sea and the pilot is feared dead, although a search continues.

    "This is an incident caused totally by the American side ... At least you should say, 'Sorry,' " Yang said.

    A senior Chinese official said Powell's statement expressing regret represented "a step in the right direction" and was being evaluated by officials in Beijing.

    With the stalemate approaching its fifth day, several U.S. officials offered conciliatory words but stopped short of an apology, which could connote wrongdoing by the U.S. military.

    "The accident took place over international airspace, over international waters, and we do not understand any reason to apologize," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "The United States did not do anything wrong."

    Meanwhile, a senior Pentagon official said the 24-member crew of the Navy surveillance plane "successfully executed" a plan to destroy sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment on board. But Pentagon officials did not elaborate on what was destroyed or how it was destroyed.

    Officials said the plane suffered more damage than originally thought in the collision, including propeller damage and the loss of wing flaps and the air speed indicator.

    Unrelenting message, escalating rhetoric

    In another development Wednesday on the U.S.-China front, China formally arrested Chinese-born U.S. academic Gao Zhan on charges of espionage. She is being held in Beijing. China's move came as it escalated its rhetoric against the United States in the plane standoff.

    The day began with stronger demands from China for an apology, and the Chinese never relented in that message.

    Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan met with the U.S. ambassador in Beijing. The official Xinhua news agency said Tang told Ambassador Joseph Prueher the United States had not taken responsibility for the incident and "has displayed an arrogant air, used lame arguments, confounded right and wrong and made groundless accusations against China."

    The meeting between the two was being viewed as fulfilling a Chinese desire to express its view of the incident directly to the ranking U.S. official in China. U.S. officials had also sought the meeting.

    Their meeting occurred shortly after Chinese President Jiang Zemin left Beijing for a tour of South America. Before leaving, Jiang called again for the United States to apologize for the incident.

    "The United States must do something favorable to the smooth development of Sino-U.S. relations, rather than make remarks that confuse right and wrong and are harmful to relations," Jiang said, according to the Chinese state-controlled media.

    Request for new crew meeting

    U.S. officials, meanwhile, were pressing for a second meeting with the crew of the Navy plane. They made their first face-to-face contact with the crew Tuesday, visiting with them for about an hour. The 21 men and three women were being held two to a room at a military guest house. The pilot is being held alone.

    While Tuesday's session did not secure the release of the crew, it did give U.S. officials their first information about the condition of the crew and the propeller-powered plane -- which suffered damage to two engines -- and what happened in the minutes after the collision. Also, a photograph released by Xinhua showed the plane lost much of its nose cone.

    The Navy plane dropped about 8,000 feet within five minutes, Pentagon officials said. Because of the damage to the wing flaps, which prevented the plane from going low and slow, the pilot could not ditch the plane in the sea and had to attempt a landing on the island, officials said.

    Another photograph taken by a commercial satellite shows the plane on the Lingshui military airfield on the island.

    Pentagon sources told CNN on Tuesday that the Chinese had removed some equipment from the plane, but White House officials could not confirm that account.

    "This is an intelligence loss any way you look at it," said Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Nebraska, a member of the House International Relations Committee. He said the crew's apparent destruction of sensitive equipment mitigated that damage, but it was still a coup for the Chinese.

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    4:30pm ET, 4/16

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