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U.S. crew released from China

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HAINAN ISLAND, China (CNN) -- The 24-member crew of the U.S. surveillance plane were released from China Thursday morning ending an 11-day Washington-Beijing standoff, CNN reports. A chartered jet left Hainan Island at 7:30 p.m. EDT with the crew members on board.

U.S. diplomats secured the release of the Navy surveillance plane crew in talks with the Chinese that ended Wednesday with the right combination of words to satisfy leaders in both capitals.


The United States said it was "very sorry" for the loss of a Chinese pilot in the collision and for the American plane's landing on Hainan without verbal clearance from China, but did not accept responsibility for the incident or agree to cancel its intelligence flights off China's coast -- both of which had been demanded by China.

"This has been a difficult situation for both our countries," U.S. President George W. Bush said Wednesday. "I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot. Our prayers are with his wife and his child."

The damaged plane landed on China's Hainan Island after a collision April 1 (March 31 in Washington) with a Chinese fighter jet shadowing it over the South China Sea. U.S. officials warned the impasse could have led to permanent damage to ties between Washington and Beijing.

Latest developments:

• In Washington, members of the U.S. Congress praised the Bush administration's handling of the crisis. (full story)

• The crew members were allowed short phone calls home after their release was announced, but family members will have to wait a little longer for reunions. (full story)

  • Text of U.S. letter expressing 'sincere regret'
  • Text of Bush's remarks
    Timeline: Overnight calls brought word of release deal
    In Greenville, North Carolina, U.S. President George W. Bush announces the return of a U.S. Navy aircrew from detention in China

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    Families of crew member show their emotions while talking about the news

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    A Chinese government official reads a statement announcing the decision

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    U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher praises the release

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    Watch Bush's reaction to the announcement

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    CNN's Mike Chinoy discusses how the Chinese media is reporting U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's comments

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    • In brief remarks announcing the deal Wednesday morning, Bush said he was proud of the crew and "We look forward to welcoming them home." (full story)

    • Chinese leaders urged their people to "maintain social stability and strengthen nationalist unity" after allowing the U.S. crew to leave. (full story)

    • The crew's release is a victory for Chinese President Jiang Zemin's moderate line toward the United States and could lead to a new set of rules governing ties between the two countries, analysts said. (full story)

    • Although the Navy plane's crew is coming home, China's objections to U.S. electronic surveillance flights off its coast are yet to be resolved: The issue is one expected to be addressed at a U.S.-Chinese meeting set for April 18. (full story)

    The crew will fly back to Guam, transfer to a military jet and then continue on to Hawaii, where they are expected to undergo two to three days of medical exams and debriefings by a variety of military teams. U.S. officials said the Chinese did not want a military plane to land on Hainan.

    The heart of the agreement that secured their release on Wednesday appeared to be differing Chinese and American perspectives on expressions of regret from U.S. officials over the incident -- the Chinese demand that the United States take "full responsibility" and apologize for the incident, and the American insistence that the United States had done nothing wrong.

    Translated into Chinese, the American statement said the U.S. was sorry for landing in China without verbal permission from the Chinese and for the loss of pilot Wang Wei -- but from the U.S. perspective, the language did not include accepting responsibility for the accident.

    "Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures," the letter said. It also states that U.S. officials were appreciative of China's assistance in an emergency situation.

    Chinese media characterized the U.S. statement as expressing sorrow for the incident itself, and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said that "humanitarian considerations" prompted the release.

    "Since the U.S. government has already said 'very sorry' to the Chinese people, the Chinese government has, out of humanitarian considerations, decided to allow the 24 people from the U.S. spy plane to leave after completion of the necessary procedures," the statement said.

    But the letter from U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher to the Foreign Ministry did not go that far. It only used the words "very sorry" in relation to the loss of the Chinese pilot and the fact that the crippled Navy plane entered Chinese air space without verbal clearance after the collision.

    Meanwhile, Chinese officials made it clear Wednesday they do not view the incident resolved, demanding further explanations from the United States about the collision. U.S. and Chinese diplomats will discuss the collision, plans for the return of the highly sensitive U.S. spy plane and China's objections to routine surveillance missions off its coast at a meeting April 18.

    The breakthrough came late Wednesday in Beijing, but in the early hours of the day in Washington. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice notified Bush of China's decision to release the crew about 5:20 a.m.

    The agreement came after statements Tuesday from the administration that U.S. authorities had gone as far as they could in talks with Beijing, and Bush indicated no immediate end to the dispute was in sight.

    CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon and CNN Correspondents Lisa Rose Weaver, Eileen O'Connor, Marina Kamimura, Patty Davis and Martin Savidge contributed to this report.

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    4:30pm ET, 4/16

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