The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The Rev. Jesse Jackson said yesterday he hopes to go to China in a bid to secure the release of 24 American servicemen and women.
Jackson said in an interview that he wants to lead an ecumenical delegation to China to work toward the freedom of the crew of a U.S. Navy EP-3E reconnaissance plane. The crew has been held on Hainan island since making an emergency landing there following an April 1 collision with a Chinese fighter plane above the South China Sea.
Jackson said he discussed his offer with Secretary of State Colin Powell and was working with Chinese embassy officials on gaining entry to the country. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Jackson's offer was turned down and U.S. officials would continue trying to resolve the impasse through diplomatic means.
Jackson said he would go if China allows his delegation entry. "And if we are allowed to get in, we stand a chance of being successful," he said.
"We are doing nothing that's offensive to our own government nor disrespectful toward our government," Jackson said. "There may be a step our government cannot take or is not willing to take."
That step is an apology demanded by China for the death of the Chinese pilot, Jackson said. The United States has expressed regrets but has not offered a formal apology, which Jackson said plays to larger cultural differences that threaten to create "a real U.S.-Asian tension."
"China has the strongest hand. They have our soldiers and we cannot get them out," Jackson said. "Culturally, they are demanding an apology. ... Culturally, we are not likely to give an apology.
"What we do know is that if we did kill the Chinese pilot, it was accidental. It was not a declaration of war," Jackson said. "Therefore we should, in my judgment, say we are sorry, we apologize if we have offended you, but then we all want an international investigation. ... I think it is a smart and correct thing to do."
President Bush was noncommittal about Jackson's offer. "I appreciate the goodwill of a lot of Americans who are concerned about our folks on Hainan island," he told reporters before his meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan.
National Security Council spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said Jackson tried to call National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice last Friday but did not reach her because she was traveling with the president.
When asked whether Rice was likely to return the call, Countryman replied: "No."
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration "appreciates the interest" of Jackson but had no plans to take him up on any offer to help end the U.S.-China standoff.
"We're going to pursue this in diplomatic channels," Boucher said.
Jackson said he was not criticizing Bush's efforts but pointed to international disputes he has successfully mediated, including helping free Americans in Syria, Iraq and Yugoslavia.
"Obviously they are proceeding with a government-to-government process," Jackson said. "They have been appreciative of our efforts to successfully bring soldiers home in the past."