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Tuesday April 3, 2001

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Bush demands return of plane, crew

Headline Photo

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday demanded China arrange the "prompt and safe return" of 24 U.S. crew members and their plane packed with spy technology, seeking to end a standoff reminiscent of the Cold War.

But despite U.S. demands for immediate access to the crew and aircraft, China indicated that access would not be granted before tonight, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said later.

"We find it very troubling about the lack of speed. We continue to press for prompt access," McClellan said.

Earlier, Bush said he was dismayed U.S. diplomats had not been given access to the crew after the plane made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan.

"I'm troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to this request for this access," he said on the White House lawn. Bush said failure to comply would be "inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice."

"Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering," he said.

The U.S. plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter early Sunday. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said the spy plane's left engine and left wing were damaged.

U.S. officials sought to keep Chinese officials from boarding the Navy plane and ordered three Navy destroyers to stay near the island.

At an appearance later yesterday with Egypt's president, Bush declined to address reports Chinese officials may have boarded the U.S. plane but said he was sending a "very clear message, and I expect them to heed the message." Bush also stated the United States believes its plane was in international airspace, not inside China.

Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, protested the lack of access to the crew.

"Under international law, that should've happened long ago, Shelton said in an interview. "We should have had access." He said it was "hard to imagine" the U.S. plane had initiated the collision.

China blames the U.S. plane for the crash, saying it suddenly veered into one of its F-8 fighters.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the crew had communicated after the collision to indicate no one was injured, but he said no one has spoken directly to them since they landed on Hainan.

Bush offered assistance in finding the missing Chinese jet, one of two he said were shadowing the American plane when the collision happened. "Our military stands ready to help."

Chinese representatives have told U.S. officials the crew is safe, McClellan said.

The destroyers will remain in the area indefinitely instead of resuming their journey home, the officials said.

A senior U.S. Navy admiral said yesterday that Chinese officials have no right to board the U.S. plane.

Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the plane, which contains sensitive cryptological and other electronic surveillance equipment, is considered sovereign territory, similar to an embassy.

"We physically cannot prevent the Chinese from boarding the plane," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

One official said that shortly after the collision the crew sent two messages - one to indicate no one aboard had been injured in the collision and another to indicate the plane had landed safely.

American officials say they don't know if Chinese officials have boarded the plane since it made the emergency landing.

"Our primary objective now is to get in touch with our people and ensure they are OK and get them back," Blair said. Fixing the plane and getting it back "is our second order of business here."

The incident follows an increase in tensions between the United States and China. China has been concerned about new arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers its own territory. Washington has protested the arrest of two scholars linked to the United States.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told a news conference that the incident with the spy plane is a "delicate matter" for U.S.-Chinese relations. "I think, for the Senate and for us and for the Chinese government, to keep a calm relationship and a constructive one and ... to lower the temperature is the right way to proceed," he said.