America resumes spy flights as row with China continues

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The Independent Online

The United States resumed reconnaissance flights off the Chinese coast yesterday, five weeks after the mid-air collision that brought US-China relations to their lowest point since the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Nato campaign against Serbia in 1999.

The United States resumed reconnaissance flights off the Chinese coast yesterday, five weeks after the mid-air collision that brought US-China relations to their lowest point since the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Nato campaign against Serbia in 1999.

The flight, by a large RC-135 plane, rather than the smaller EP-3 type that was involved in last month's incident, was not intercepted, US officials said. The Pentagon had been reticent about when or whether the intelligence-gathering flights would resume in the face of Chinese demands that they should be stopped altogether.

But the US had insisted that they had every right to conduct the flights, which take place in international air space, and their resumption had appeared to be only a matter of time. Yesterday's flight, which took place in daylight and was not announced in advance, came amid a continuing dispute about the fate of the EP-3 involved in the incident on 1 April.

Although the American crew was repatriated 11 days after the collision, their plane remains at the Hainan island airfield where it landed after the incident. It lost an engine and its nose cone in the collision with the Chinese Jianjiji-8 fighter.

A team of US engineers inspected the aircraft last week and reportedly concluded that it could be repaired sufficiently to be flown out of China, which the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has said would be preferable. Beijing, however, is reported to want the aircraft disassembled and removed in crates ­ if it allows it to be taken back to the US at all.

It was not clear yesterday whether the resumption of reconnaissance flights would make Beijing less inclined to return the aircraft. But Mr Rumsfeld saidhe did not believe the Chinese would not have given US engineers access to the aircraft unless they intended to release it.

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