- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

When President Bush went to bed Tuesday night, there was no sign of a breakthrough in the China hostage standoff. But when he woke up yesterday, prospects for release of the 24 Americans had improved dramatically.
After 10 days of stalemate with the Chinese, resolution of the conflict came down to the 10 hours between Mr. Bush's consultation with the National Security Council at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday and his emergence in the White House press briefing room at 8:25 a.m. yesterday to announce the hostages would be freed.
Mr. Bush received mixed signals when he called the NSC for a progress report before retiring for the evening.
Adm. Joseph Prueher, U.S. ambassador to China, was trying to secure a meeting with Chinese communist officials in order to deliver the latest draft of a letter saying the United States was "very sorry" that a Chinese pilot had been killed in the collision with the American surveillance plane.
"He was told that our government had been talking with the Chinese government about logistics, which the president took as an encouraging sign," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "But he was also advised that no meeting had been scheduled at that time between Ambassador Prueher and Chinese officials.
"And that was the state of play when the president went to bed last night," he added.
While Mr. Bush slumbered, events began to accelerate in Beijing, which is 12 hours ahead of Washington. At 12:45 a.m., Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice with encouraging news.
Mr. Armitage informed Miss Rice that "the Chinese wanted to receive the full text of the letter and that Ambassador Prueher would be called in for a meeting," said Mr. Fleischer. "That was a sure sign that this matter was on its way to being resolved."
Shortly after 5 a.m., Mr. Prueher delivered his letter to the Chinese, who had earlier rejected multiple drafts of the document as insufficiently contrite. For the first time since the standoff began, the Chinese assured Adm. Prueher the hostages would be released.
At 5:40 a.m., Miss Rice telephoned the president in the White House residence with an update and told him a resolution was at hand.
"The president said 'good,' leaned over and told Laura that it looks like the matter is going to be resolved," said Mr. Fleischer.
At 6:30 a.m., Chinese state television announced the Americans would be freed. Miss Rice again phoned the president to tell him the standoff had been resolved.
"That's great," Mr. Bush said, according to his spokesman.
At 6:50 a.m., the president entered the Oval Office. Twenty minutes later, Mr. Fleischer issued a written statement announcing the standoff was over. He also released the text of Adm. Prueher's letter.
At 8:25 a.m., the president stepped into the White House press briefing room, followed by Vice President Richard B. Cheney. Mr. Bush went to the podium and made a one-minute announcement.
"I'm pleased to be able to tell the American people that plans are under way to bring home our 24 American servicemen and women from Hainan island," he said. "This morning, the Chinese government assured our American ambassador that the crew would leave promptly. We're working on arrangements to pick them up and bring them home."
A senior administration official said throughout the incident that "we were trying to not to cast blame, but to be clear about what we needed."
By April 4, the White House realized that the Chinese were "looking for some expression of concern for the missing pilot," said the senior official.
China's government not only wanted an apology, a "red line" Mr. Bush would not cross, but also an explanation as well, said the senior official.
The administration first surfaced the word "regret" through background briefings and by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and then by the president at a speech to newspaper editors.
"So we tested some words to see if they contributed and then the president would make them public. "We know 'regret' works and is helpful."
By Saturday evening, Chinese government officials had replied that Beijing's leaders needed "a little more" because "regret" was not enough.
"They were asking for an apology and we said that's not on the table," said the senior official. "We say 'very sorry' and that seems to solve the problem in terms of the language."
After his morning statement, Mr. Bush ignored questions from the assembled reporters and departed the briefing room. Later in the morning, he flew to North Carolina for a previously scheduled speech on education.
Learning that one of the crew members grew up in the Charlotte area, Mr. Bush mentioned the family during his speech at 11:55 a.m. His staff hastily arranged for the president to meet directly with the parents of Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Blocher afterward.
By the time Mr. Bush posed for photos with the Blochers at 12:40 p.m., a chartered Continental Airlines jet was on its way to pick up their son and the other hostages.
Mr. Bush was having dinner with aides in the conference room aboard Air Force One, coming back from North Carolina, when he heard last night's report that the crew had left China.
"Our team didn't turn the first incident into a crisis," he told Miss Rice.
Bill Gertz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports


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