- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

China released the 24 hostages of a U.S. surveillance plane held for 12 days after receiving a Bush administration letter saying the United States was "very sorry" for the plane's landing on Hainan island without verbal clearance.

A chartered Continental Airlines Boeing 737 took off with the crew members aboard at about 7:30 p.m. yesterday Washington time, from the civilian airport at Haikou, the capital of Hainan. At around midnight EDT, they landed on U.S. territory on the Pacific island of Guam.

There, the 21 men and three women got their first chance to talk with family members by telephone. A military C-17 would later carry them farther across the Pacific to Hawaii, where they are expected to arrive at 12:30 p.m. EDT today.

President Bush stopped far short of the apology demanded by China for a midair collision U.S. officials say was caused by a Chinese fighter pilot whose jet clipped the Navy EP-3E reconnaissance plane in international airspace.

"We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely," the United States said in a letter from Adm. Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, to Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Tang Jiaxuan.

The letter, however, asserts that the United States followed international law.

"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," said the letter.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that Mr. Bush, upon learning the detainees were in flight, turned to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and said: "You did a fine job. Congratulations. Our team didn't turn the first incident into a crisis."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush was "very pleased for the families, he's very pleased for the crew. He's pleased that this accident did not turn into a crisis."

After the plane was safely outside China's airspace, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said in Washington that a 13-member team of doctors and intelligence officers had begun debriefing crew members and checking on their health.

"What we're looking for is before the details of the collision start to fade," the Defense Department spokesman told reporters at a briefing at the Pentagon. "With time, we want to see if we can capture their memories … and get their understanding, in their own perceptions, in their own words, of the details surrounding the accident," Adm. Quigley said at a Pentagon briefing.

Mr. Tang said China had agreed to release the crew on "humanitarian grounds."

While the United States did not apologize for the collision which left the Chinese pilot missing and presumed dead China's state-run media had a different take.

The Beijing Morning Post today carried the banner headline: "The United States finally apologizes!"

A Xinhua news agency commentary said the Chinese people had united in "opposing American hegemony and protecting national sovereignty and dignity. This shows China upholds peace and does not fear intimidation by big powers."

Mr. Bush used cautious language early yesterday when he announced the release of the 21 men and 3 women and avoided using the word "apology" altogether.

"These have been difficult days for all of the families," Mr. Bush said late yesterday at an education event at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

"And these days are a reminder of the sacrifices all of our men and women in uniform and their families make every single day for freedom. And so we're proud and thankful for the service folks. We're proud and thankful for their parents. And we can't wait for them to get home."

In Paris for meetings with European foreign ministers on the turmoil in the Balkans, Secretary of State Colin Powell defended the administration's refusal to give Beijing the full apology it demanded.

"There was nothing to apologize for. We did not do anything wrong, and therefore it was not possible to apologize," he said.

And, Mr. Powell said, "We entered the airspace without permission because we were unable to get permission. Niceties and formalities were not available to us."

Miss Rice told ABC's "Nightline" that the "letter had really been in final form, from our point of view, for a couple of days and the bulk of the package had really been there since last Thursday."

"It was really only a question of when," she said.

Shortly before leaving for North Carolina to sell his budget proposal, Mr. Bush said, "I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot."

The U.S. letter to China similarly said: "Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss."

The letter sets up an April 18 meeting in which Chinese and U.S. officials will arrange for the release of the EP-3E reconnaissance plane and discuss U.S. surveillance flights in international airspace near China.

The crew members are to be flown later to their home base at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Seattle, where news of the impending release brought immense relief to anxious families.

"We're very pleased," said Shirley Crandall, stepmother of U.S. Navy Seaman Jeremy Crandall, from her home in Loves Park, Ill. "My heart is just pounding."

In Paris, Mr. Powell insisted that the incident has not damaged long-term U.S.-China relations.

"We've stopped this process that was unfolding before it became more serious," he said. "I don't see anything that isn't recoverable."

Yet questions still remained about when the U.S. surveillance plane would be returned to the United States.

"Obviously, the return of the crew has been our No. 1 priority from the beginning of this incident," said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman. "We have also stated repeatedly that we expect the return of our aircraft. But as the letter states fairly clearly, that will be on the agenda at the meeting."

China's president warned that the incident was not over.

"The incident has not been fully settled. We hope that the U.S. side will adopt a serious attitude toward China's standpoint on the incident and handle it properly," said President Jiang Zemin, in Uruguay on a 12-day Latin American tour, according to Xinhua.

"We still have some problems with the airplane and we have to keep the airplane and to make further investigation," said Shen Guofang, China's deputy ambassador to the United Nations. "The airplane violates our territory and the land without permission, so that is the problem, and also we have to make further investigation on the airplane."

Significantly, perhaps, Mr. Shen reiterated the accusation his government had leveled from the outset that the lumbering surveillance plane violated Chinese territory.

The Bush administration has rejected the accusation all along, and at Mr. Powell's insistence the letter accepted by China refers only to the plane's entering Chinese airspace.

"At this stage I don't think that we [have] decided yet … when to hand over the plane, but we have to make further investigation anyway," said the Chinese diplomat.

In North Carolina, Mr. Bush met with the parents of one detainee, Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Blocher.

"These good folks are patriots, as is their son," he told the couple. "I'm so appreciative of how this family and the other families were steadfast in their patriotism and loyalty."

Bob Blocher, the father of the officer, said: "To meet the president under such happy circumstances was more than we could ask the Lord for."

Mr. Bush, seeming relieved that the crisis had been resolved, told a cheering middle-school crowd, "This reminds us how much American military families sacrifice for our freedom. It also reminds me it's such an honor to be commander in chief of such wonderful people."

While the president focused on the return of the crew members, many in his administration made it clear that the incident would not deter U.S. surveillance flights near the Chinese coast.

In Washington, Vice President Richard B. Cheney said on WAMU-FM, "With the respect to the right of the United States to continue to operate our aircraft in international airspace, that really is a given. That is not a subject that we would want to concede on."

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, rejected claims of some conservative activists that detention of the crew and Mr. Bush's statements of regret had humiliated the United States.

"This is not a humiliation for the United States," said the former CIA officer. "If we get our troops back … this means the sole superpower in the world, that has to deal with all the problems around the globe, has worked a very good solution to a friction point that's bothering a large sovereign nation."

Samuel R. Berger, who was President Clinton's national security adviser, praised the Bush administration for achieving "an honorable result" one that he said also permitted the Chinese "to save some face."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide