- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) — Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, President Jacques Chirac of France and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were among the first world leaders to send condolences to President Bush and the American people Saturday following the Columbia shuttle disaster.

Putin telephoned Bush at the White House to express his personal sorrow, a Kremlin spokesman said. Putin told the president that the space cooperation between the two countries "makes us all the more sensitive to the tragedy."

An earlier published message from Putin saluted the seven astronauts as "courageous people who gave their life for the sake of peace, science and the progress of science."

Putin also called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem to convey his condolences at the death of astronaut Ilan Rowan.

Chinese President Jiang, according to state-run media sources, called both President Bush and Israeli President Moshe Katsav to say the Chinese government and people deeply regret the disaster.

Jiang said he believes mankind will continue to make further progress in space exploration despite the setback.

The tragedy occurred in the late night hours on the first day of China's traditional lunar new year celebrations.

A French government spokesman said Chirac called Bush and assured him of "the friendship of France" and his condolences for the tragic death of the Columbia crew.

Schroeder, whose relationship with Bush has been strained lately because of differences over Iraq policy, told the president in his message, "Your country is experiencing a new tragedy."

Arafat first expressed condolences to both "the Israeli people" and the United States through cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, and then sent a personal telegram to Bush.

From Tehran, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said the Iranian government sent condolences to the families of the dead astronauts. Asefi said Iran distinguished between "the political row" with the United States and scientific and humanitarian issues.

Messages were flowing into the White House from leaders as diverse as President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi of Italy and President Gaider Aliyev of Azerbaijan.

The Russians announced Saturday that they were going ahead Sunday with the launch of the Progress M-47 cargo craft from Baikonur to deliver fuel, equipment, food and parcels for the three-man crew of the international space station.

But Russian and other experts said the Columbia catastrophe raised questions about the future of the U.S. and Russian joint efforts in space. The director general of Russia's Aviation and Space station, Sergei Gorbunov, speculated to the Itar-Tass agency that at the least major aspects of the program will be stalled "possibly for several years, until the causes of the Columbia accident are determined."

With the U.S. fleet of three remaining shuttles grounded for the time being, contact with the space station will be through the Russian Soyuz flights only.

"If it turns out that the accident was caused by the worn out parts of the ship," one Russian expert told Itar-Tass, "this will lead to a decision to stop the flights of all the American space ships."

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