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U.S. spy plane crew land in Guam

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U.S. spy plane crew arrives in Guam  

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GUAM (CNN) -- The 24 crew members of the U.S. Navy spy plane detained in China for 11 days has landed on the tiny Pacific island of Guam as they make their way to Hawaii.

Traveling on a chartered Continental Boeing 737, and accompanied by an experienced repatriation team, the crew completed the first leg of their journey home almost four hours after leaving Hainan Island, on China's south coast.

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The crew members emerged from the jet to applause from a small group of officers assembled to meet them on the tarmac. They were then loaded onto buses to be transferred elsewhere on Guam.

The crew had been held in custody since April 1, when their spy plane limped to a Chinese airforce base after colliding in mid-air with a Chinese fighter jet sent to intercept them.

The collision caused a confrontation between China and the U.S. that became an international incident, ended only when the U.S. signed a letter in which it said it was "very sorry" the spy plane entered Chinese airspace to land without permission.

The repatriation team on board the consists of psychologists, medical personnel and military intelligence officers who will look after the 21 men and three women and begin debriefing them about the collision and their detainment by the Chinese on Hainan Island.

"Before the details of the collision start to fade in any human beings' mind with time, we want to see if we can capture their memories while they are still fresh, and get their understanding in their own perceptions and their own words, the details surrounding the accident, timeline leading up to it, everything," explained Rear Admiral Craig Quigley in a briefing at the Pentagon.

Quigley also said the team would stay with the crew during their four- to five-hour stopover in Guam, where the crew members will shower, change clothes, have a meal and call their families. All will then board a C-17 military jet and proceed to Hawaii, where they will undergo three more days of debriefings and medical exams.

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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 also for the American plane's landing on Hainan without 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 China demanded.

U.S. officials warned the impasse could have permanently damaged ties between Washington and Beijing.

The damaged plane landed on China's Hainan Island after it collided April 1 (March 31 in Washington) with one of two Chinese fighter jets shadowing it over the South China Sea.

Latest developments:

• Chinese police detained the CNN correspondent and camera crew that broadcast the only live pictures of the departure of the chartered jet carrying the released U.S. crew. (full story)

• Upon learning of the departure of the U.S. crew, President Bush turned to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and praised her for the fine job she did in handling the incident. (full story)

• 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)

• 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 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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RELATED SITES:
USCINCPAC Homepage
The Pentagon
U.S. Navy
Navy Fact File: EP-3E ORION (ARIES II) Aircraft
U.S. Department of Defense
Government of China (in Chinese)
U.S. Department of State
Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the U.S.A.
Government Information Office, Republic of China

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