Thu, Apr 12, 2001 - Page 1 News List

China, US agree on freeing plane crew

WORD PLAY The deal came about after US Ambassador Joseph Prueher delivered a letter, which twice used the words `very sorry' but did not actually apologize for the collision of the planes

REUTERS AND AP , BEIJING

China and the US said yesterday that they had reached an agreement on the release of the 24 detained crew members of a US spy plane.

China said it would free the crew -- who have been at the center of an 11-day-old Sino-American standoff -- on humanitarian grounds once the "relevant procedures" had been completed.

US President George W. Bush, expressing sorrow for the death of a Chinese fighter pilot in the April 1 collision with the spy plane over the South China Sea, said plans were under way to bring home the crew from Hainan island as soon as possible.

"This morning the Chinese government assured our American ambassador that the crew would leave promptly," Bush said in a brief statement at the White House. "We are working on arrangements to pick them up and to bring them home."

China's Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan (唐家璇) announced the breakthrough in remarks quoted by the official Xinhua news agency after receiving what Chinese state media portrayed as a letter of apology from Washington.

China's Foreign Ministry said the 24 crew, which includes three women, would be freed together, and that this should not take long if Washington "is cooperative enough" in carrying out what it called the "relevant procedures."

US Ambassador Joseph Prueher handed Tang the letter, which twice used the words "very sorry" but did not actually apologize for the collision.

"As the US government has already said `very sorry' to the Chinese people, the Chinese government has, out of humanitarian considerations, decided to allow the crew members to leave China after completing the necessary procedures," Tang said.

Wang Wei (王偉), the pilot of the Chinese fighter jet, is missing and presumed dead.

"Both President Bush and Secretary of State [Colin] Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft," read Prueher's letter.

"Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss," it said.

"We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance," it added. Earlier, China's state-run media prepared the angry nation for a resolution which could be presented as the apology from the US that Beijing had demanded. Washington has refused to apologize for the collision, arguing that it was not the spy plane's fault.

Prueher's letter described what happened as being "still unclear" and said the two sides would meet on April 18 to discuss the causes of the incident and other related issues.

China's state television earlier told the nation of 1.3 billion people that US Secretary of State Powell had expressed "regret" and "sorrow" for the E-P3 spy plane's incursion into Chinese airspace after the collision.

US officials complained key context had been edited out of the report, but a Western diplomat said that did not matter. "The fact that they twisted his words a bit is not the point. The point is they are setting the scene for something to happen," the diplomat added.

US officials in Washington said earlier that the letter had been thrashed out in negotiations between the two sides. "What the Chinese will choose to characterize as an apology, we would probably choose to characterize as an expression of regret or sorrow," one senior administration official said.

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