- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

President Bush stepped up pressure on China yesterday, telling Beijing "it is time" to release 24 U.S. service members held from what China is calling "protective custody" but which the United States says is detention.
"We have allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing," Mr. Bush said. "But now it is time for our servicemen and women to return home. And it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane."
Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday rejected Beijing's claim that the crew is being held on the South China Sea island of Hainan in protective custody.
"They're being held incommunicado under circumstances that I don't find acceptable," he told reporters traveling with him from Florida to Washington. "The Chinese have said they're being protected I don't know from what. In my judgment, they're being detained."
As the president repeated his call for the release of the U.S. Navy EP-3E aircraft and its crew, China also demanded an apology from the United States for the collision with an F-8 interceptor jet flying close to the U.S. turboprop aircraft. Beijing also demanded a halt to all future electronic surveillance flights near China.
U.S. officials rejected both of China's appeals.
"We have nothing to apologize for," Mr. Powell said. "We did not do anything wrong. Our airplane was in international airspace, an accident took place and the pilot, in order to save 24 lives, including his own, under circumstances we now have determined must have been hair-raising, safely got that plane on the ground."
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an interview that U.S. surveillance flights in the region are continuing and have not been stopped.
Photographs of the aircraft released by China's official media show the aircraft's nose missing and two of its four propeller-driven engines damaged. Pentagon officials said the aircraft fell some 8,000 feet in altitude after the accident before the plane was brought under control.
Meanwhile, anti-China sentiment is growing on Capitol Hill over the detention of 22 Navy sailors, one Air Force airman and a Marine, which continued even after the 24 detainees met with U.S. Embassy officials yesterday two days after the emergency landing.
Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for an immediate suspension of the Pentagon's military exchange program with China. The program is under review by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Mr. Bush said in a statement to reporters that the United States was trying to prevent the accident Sunday over the South China Sea from becoming "an international incident."
But he said the "unusual situation" of a military aircraft making an emergency landing on Chinese soil "has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries."
"To keep that from happening, our servicemen and women need to come home," Mr. Bush said.
In Beijing, Chinese President Jiang Zemin accused the crew of the EP-3E of violating international law by intruding into Chinese airspace during the emergency landing Sunday after the collision with the F-8.
"The responsibility fully lies with the American side" for the collision, Mr. Jiang was quoted as saying by a government spokesman. "We have full evidence for that."
The Chinese leader said the United States must cease U.S. surveillance flights near China's coast "so as to prevent similar accidents from happening again."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said in a news conference: "The U.S. should face the facts squarely, shoulder responsibility and apologize to the Chinese side instead of seeking excuses for itself."
Mr. Zhu told reporters in Beijing that the EP-3E intruded into Chinese airspace and that the matter is "under investigation."
Mr. Bush said a U.S. general who met the 24 crew members found them in good health, uninjured and not mistreated.
"Our crew members expressed their faith in America, and we have faith in them," Mr. Bush said. "They send their love to their families. They said they are looking forward to coming home. And we are looking forward to bringing them home."
At the State Department, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage summoned Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi to a meeting where he pressured Beijing to release the crew, according to a U.S. official.
Expressions of regret over China's loss of a fighter pilot could be expected, "but in terms of an apology, no," said a senior administration official.
U.S. officials have said the F-8 was flying dangerously close to the EP-3E when a collision occurred. The Chinese aircraft, a version of the Soviet-designed MiG-21, crashed and its pilot is missing.
The EP-3E was damaged and made an emergency landing.
Mr. Powell said during a visit to Key West, Fla., that said he was "a little concerned" by China's handling of the incident.
"We could have resolved it much earlier, I think, and without creating the level of interest that there is and the level of difficulty we've encountered," he said. And "we are asking them to move as quickly as possible to release our crew members, release our airplane, and let's get back to other matters and put this behind us."
Mr. Powell said he is unable to confirm reports that the Chinese military had boarded the aircraft.
"We have said that the plane should not be violated," he said. "It is protected, in our judgment, from that kind of intrusion."
Mr. Powell said the issue of the detention of Americans and plans for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan should not be linked.
"Obviously, when you examine the arms sales question, it is done in the context of our obligations to Taiwan under the policies we followed with respect to Taiwan and their defensive needs for many years," he said.
Some analysts fear China, which opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, could use the captive crew and aircraft as political leverage against U.S. arms sales.
U.S. officials said intelligence reports, based on satellite photographs of the aircraft on Hainan Island, indicate equipment from the aircraft has been removed.
In Haikou, China, on Hainan Island, Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the top defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, spoke to reporters after a 40-minute meeting with the crew.
"The entire crew is in good health," said Gen. Sealock, one of two diplomats who visited the detained Americans. "They are being well taken care of."
The one-star general noted: "Our goal is to get them home as soon as possible."
A Pentagon official familiar with the meeting said the Chinese military officials told Gen. Sealock that the crew is being held in "protective custody."
The meeting was described as "controlled" with the Chinese limiting questioning of the crew, which includes three female sailors, to their personal health and treatment, the official said.
The Chinese prohibited any discussion about the collision.
"These guys are there as a result of an international air disaster and they should be treated as such," the official said. "They are not there for any fault of their own. They should be treated as guests as opposed to what the Chinese call 'protective custody.' "
Retired Adm. Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China, said it was likely the Chinese gained access to the aircraft, which is filled with sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment.
"Our presumption is that they have been on the airplane already," he said.
The compromise to the Chinese of such sensitive equipment is "a great concern," he said.
U.S. intelligence officials said they are still unaware of whether the EP-3E crew successfully destroyed or disposed of sensitive code and electronic eavesdropping gear before landing.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: "We don't know the net loss here yet, we'll figure that out later."
The senator noted that he does not believe "it's irreparable damage to our intelligence gathering process by any means, but it's too early to assess that."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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