- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

President Bush called on China yesterday to "promptly" release the 24 U.S. service members held at a military base in southern China and to return their EP-3E airplane intact.

"My reaction is the Chinese must promptly allow us to have contact with the 24 airmen and women that are there and return our plane to us without any further tampering," Mr. Bush told reporters after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I sent a very clear message, and I expect them to heed the message."

"Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew and the return of the aircraft," Mr. Bush said.

China, which is blaming the United States for the collision between an F-8 jet interceptor and the U.S. turboprop aircraft, refused for more than a day to let any American officials see the crew.

Early this morning, CNN reported that the U.S. ambassador to China told reporters that U.S. officials will see the crew "this evening," China time. No exact time or circumstance was specified.

Adm. Joseph Prueher added he was not pleased that China had delayed access as long as it had almost two days.

The crew, in one of its last communications from the plane, told U.S. authorities that armed Chinese soldiers were boarding the aircraft, a senior U.S. official told the Associated Press, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Pentagon officials said intelligence reports reaching Washington indicate the 22 sailors, one airman and one Marine were taken off the electronic-eavesdropping aircraft that made an emergency landing on Hainan Island on Sunday morning. The collision downed the Chinese aircraft.

Earlier, the president said he was "troubled" by China's handling of the incident and offered this blunt statement: "Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice, and with the expressed desire of both our countries for better relations."

In Lingshui, a sailor at a base near the aircraft told AP that the EP-3 crew was taken off the plane and sent to a "military guest house." Pentagon officials could not confirm the account.

The EP-3, a version of the Navy's P-3 aircraft, was seen sitting empty on a runway at the island airfield.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said three U.S. warships, kept in the region for a day in case China needed assistance in locating the downed pilot, were ordered home.

"They were given permission to proceed," Adm. Quigley said. "The Chinese did not respond to the offer for assistance."

The ships had not hung around as a show of force, he said. "That wasn't the motivation," he said.

No U.S. forces in the Pacific are on alert as a result of the standoff, Adm. Quigley said. "We are very much looking for a diplomatic outcome of this," he said.

Also early today, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters in Canberra that a Chinese military official had told him Beijing would give immediate access to the crew of the U.S. plane.

Mr. Downer said Zhang Wannian, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, had given the assurance during talks today in the Australian capital.

"He told me that the Chinese side would allow consular access to the Americans immediately, consistent with diplomatic norms and that this matter would be resolved through diplomatic means," Mr. Downer told reporters.

China's foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, said yesterday in Paris that he hoped the confrontation over the crew and aircraft would not disrupt U.S.-Chinese ties.

"The American side has explained time and again to our ambassador that this incident will not influence the general interests between China and the United States," Mr. Tang said.

The incident set some Internet chat rooms in China abuzz. One Internet comment described the missing Chinese F-8 pilot as a national hero and called the 24 Americans on Hainan "devils."

Mr. Downer said he had taken the impression from Mr. Zhang that "there was no question in his mind" that the collision was a deliberate act.

Adm. Prueher told reporters in Beijing yesterday that "it is inexplicable and unacceptable and of grave concern to the most senior leaders in the United States government that the air crew has been held incommunicado for over 32 hours. The Chinese so far have given us no explanation for holding this crew."

As for the EP-3, Adm. Quigley said the four-engine surveillance plane "is a piece of American property."

"And a piece of American property is a piece of American territory that under international law … is considered the property of the parent country that should not be subject to search or seizure or confiscation without the specific invitation of the owning nation," Adm. Quigley said.

The aircraft could produce an intelligence windfall for the Chinese military, although security procedures for EP-3 crews call for destroying sensitive documents and disabling hardware in the event of an emergency.

Asked if the administration plans tougher action, Adm. Quigley said: "A lot depends on how today goes. If we're allowed to gain access and it is clear they're being well-treated, then we can start talking about sending repair crews in to repair the plane and get everybody on board and fly away."

Another Pentagon official said the Chinese government's handling of the incident was unacceptable.

"We're getting indications that we may be seeing them in the next few days," said one Pentagon official. "That is unacceptable. We want immediate access and the return of the crew and airplane."

House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, yesterday described the dispute as part of a pattern of Chinese actions.

"Since the beginning of the year, the People's Republic of China has detained a number of American citizens and permanent residents, including a 5-year-old boy who was held apart from his family for four weeks," Mr. Hyde said. "Responsible members of the international community do not arbitrarily detain citizens of other nations."

Mr. Hyde also said this incident would not alter U.S. policy on other issues with China.

"The Beijing government is terribly mistaken if it believes these actions will influence the U.S. decision due later this month to permit the sale of defensive weapons to Taiwan," Mr. Hyde said.

At the other end of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott also called for release of the crew and aircraft "as soon as possible."

According to Pentagon intelligence sources, the incident is becoming a "worst-case" scenario.

The Chinese military has told its government that the entire episode was a U.S. provocation, a position that is expected to make resolving the affair more difficult, said one defense official.

"They've made up a big story that the Americans did this deliberately and that is going to make it hard for anyone to back down," the official said.

The incident comes a week after a confrontation between U.S. and Chinese ships in the Yellow Sea, in which a Chinese frigate came within 100 yards of a U.S. ocean-survey ship and aimed its gun-control radars on the unarmed American vessel.

The run-in between the ships came within a 200-mile zone that China claims as an "Economic Exclusion Zone," but outside the internationally recognized 12-mile limit on territorial waters.

The 200-mile zone that Beijing has claimed was proposed by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The treaty explicitly allows for even armed warships to travel through the zone, provided the activities are not "prejudicial to the peace, good order or security" of the country, according to the National Council for Science and the Environment.

Japan criticized China for encroachments by its warships and research vessels on Japan's zone in August. China would not promise that it would not happen again.

• Dave Boyer and Carter Dougherty contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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