- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

China announced yesterday that the Bush administration had given up hope of flying out the downed EP-3E reconnaissance plane and will take it out in pieces a claim that baffled Washington and brought a denial.

This latest flap over how to reclaim the $80 million Navy aircraft began in Beijing, where a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the United States had proposed dismantling the Chinese-held plane.

"The U.S. side submitted a proposal to take apart the U.S. aircraft and to transport it back," Agence France-Presse quoted spokesman Zhu Bangzao as saying. "The Chinese side has agreed to that and the two sides will continue to have consultations on the technical aspects."

If true, Mr. Zhu´s version of events would represent a setback for the Pentagon, which wants to send in technicians to repair the four-engine aircraft before flying it off Hainan island.

But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, along with other U.S. officials, said no such agreement had been reached.

"The discussions are going on, and we have not received anything official back from them with respect to that," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

Still, many in the administration are becoming resigned to the fact the only way to bring the plane back is to disassemble the airframe in a way that allows it to be flyable again.

"The quickest, cheapest, most efficient way to get that plane off of Hainan island is to repair it to the point where it can be safely flown off the island," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman. "It´s fewer people. It´s less equipment. It´s less time. The whole footprint is smaller. … But there are alternatives. If it comes to that, yes, the plane could be disassembled and removed that way."

Adm. Quigley expressed bafflement at China´s announcement of a breakthrough.

"I can´t explain for you why that was said earlier today, coming out of China," he said. "But we checked and double-checked and triple-checked over the course of the morning and there has just been no final agreement as to the methodology by which the plane is removed."

Beijing has taken a belligerent tone toward the United States ever since the EP-3E electronic eavesdropping aircraft was struck and damaged April 1 by an intercepting Chinese fighter jet, sending its pilot to his death. The EP-3E, two of its four engines damaged and its nose cone sheared, limped onto the airfield at Hainan island.

The People´s Liberation Army held the 24-member crew 12 days despite U.S. protests, while PLA technicians stripped the aircraft of valuable intelligence information. Talks to retrieve the now-gutted aircraft have gone on for weeks between the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Rumsfeld said there are two options. Washington´s preference is for China to let a team of Lockheed-Martin technicians repair the plane and fly it home. The second option is to dismantle the wings and load them and the fuselage into a huge cargo jet. That process would take 30 to 40 days and a team of up to 25 technicians, government officials say.

But that, too, presents problems. China is concerned the airfield will not support the weight of a multiton transport. It is pressing to cut the plane into smaller pieces, a tactic that could leave it unusable.

"There is a question, I´m told, with respect to the stress factors on the runway as to whether it can take a transport that large," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

At the State Department, spokesman Philip Reeker said the administration was "prepared, if necessary" to ship, rather than fly, the EP-3E.

"As we´ve said before, our strong preference remains to repair and fly out our airplane," Mr. Reeker said.

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