US spy plane crew back on American soil

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The Independent US

The crew of a US spy plane have arrived back on American soil, landing in Guam in hours after being released from 12 days of detention in China.

The crew of a US spy plane arrived back on American soil today, landing in Guam hours after being released from 12 days of detention in China, before flying to Hawaii for family homecomings.

The uniformed crew members – whose spy plane is still being held by China pending further talks set for April 18 – emerged from their charter flight to Guam one by one. Led by pilot Lt Shane Osborn, they saluted Rear Adm Tom S Fellin, commander of US Naval Forces, Marianas, and shook his hand as they reached the bottom of the stairs. They were driven away in buses.

On Guam, the 24 crew members were to have a chance to shower, change clothes, eat and phone their families, the Pentagon said. Then, a military C–17 was to carry them to Hawaii. The crew was to stay at Pearl Harbour Naval Base for two days of briefings before returning to Whidbey Island, Washington, for a homecoming celebration planned for Saturday afternoon.

Across the country, relatives of the freed crew members said they were ecstatic at the news of their return.

"My heart is just pounding," said Shirley Crandall, stepmother of Navy Seaman Jeremy Crandall, from her home in Loves Park, Illinois.

Mary Mercado, wife of aviation electronics technician Ramon Mercado, said her "heart was racing" as she watched a televised broadcast of the chartered plane taking off from Hainan, the Chinese island where the crew had been held.

"I've had butterflies in my stomach since this morning," she said from Oak Harbour, Washington. "We're just happy they're alive and coming home safely."

The crew had landed their damaged Navy EP–3E on Hainan after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet on April 1 over the South China Sea. The collision shattered the tail fin of the Chinese F–8 fighter, which spiraled out of control, Chinese state media said. The pilot, Wang Wei, was seen bailing out, but is missing and presumed dead.

The crew's release came after President George W Bush agreed to say the United States was "very sorry" for the pilot's death and for the US plane's landing in China without permission.

The letter – a delicate, carefully worded compromise characterized immediately by Chinese officials as an apology – capped days of tortuous linguistic negotiation over the release of the air crew and the collision that has threatened US–China relations.

It offered a tolerable way out for the governments of two powerful, deeply intertwined nations that, in public, had maintained intractable positions. The United States evaded the full apology demanded by China, which nevertheless extracted an intricate series of expressions of sorrow from Washington.

"This has been a difficult situation for both our countries," Bush said after the Chinese announced the release. "I know the American people join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of a Chinese pilot. Our prayers are with his wife and his child."

In China, the government–run Beijing Morning Post on Thursday carried the banner headline: "The United States finally apologizes!"

A commentary by the state–run Xinhua News Agency said the Chinese people had united behind their government in "opposing American hegemony and protecting national sovereignty and dignity. This shows China upholds peace and does not fear intimidation by big powers."

Chinese President Jiang Zemin, on a 12–day tour of Latin America, said "the incident has not been fully settled." Jiang made his remarks in Uruguay before heading to Brazil.

"We hope that the US side will adopt a serious attitude toward China's standpoint on the incident and handle it properly," Jiang said, according to Xinhua.

The 21 men and three women in the crew had left a civilian airport in Haikou, the capital of the Chinese island of Hainan, about 7:30am local time. Chinese police, some in riot gear, showed up at the airport immediately after the plane left and detained at least one group of foreign journalists for about four hours.

Hours later, officials in the United States were preparing for the crew's return.

Rear Adm Michael Holmes, commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Force Pacific, said the Whidbey Island return will be the best opportunity for families to reunite with the crew. He said Whidbey Island Naval Air Station would be opened to the public for the celebration and thousands were expected to attend.

"I think it's important to understand that in the minds of the crew members, their mission is not complete as of yet," Holmes said. "The plan is to bring them back to Hawaii so they can commence the debriefing process and complete the mission. We want to reunite the family members as quickly as we can."

After the celebration, the crew members will be on 30–day leave, Holmes said.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm Craig Quigley said a 13–member team of psychologists, physicians, intelligence officers and other specialists was aboard the charter plane that landed at Guam to check on the crew's health and begin debriefings.

"What we're looking for is before the details of the collision start to fade ... with time, we want to see if we can capture their memories ... and get their understanding, in their own perceptions, in their own words, of the details surrounding the accident," Quigley said.

China's deputy UN ambassador, Shen Guofang, said that his country would keep the spy plane, which has been held on Hainan since April 1, pending further investigation. The Chinese government said it would keep the plane until it could hold more talks with the United States starting April 18.

American officials assume Chinese experts have stripped the craft of its sophisticated surveillance equipment. Satellite photos show trucks lined up next to the spy plane on the tarmac of the Chinese air base in Lingshui, where it made the emergency landing.

Crew members worked to delete top–secret codes and intelligence before the Chinese came aboard, the Pentagon has said.

US officials said there were no plans to end the practice of flying spy planes in international airspace near China. Chinese officials have denounced the surveillance flights as a violation of national sovereignty.

"It must be pointed out that this case has not concluded yet," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said.

With Jiang in Latin America throughout much of the crisis, it wasn't immediately clear who in the Chinese government was managing the situation, who had a say in deciding to release the crew, or to what extent the Chinese military was involved.

In addition, there were very few of the direct pronouncements from top officials that are typical in situations when China feels its sovereignty or dignity has been threatened.

The Cold War–style dispute inflamed tensions over an expected US decision this month on arms sales to Taiwan – which China claims as its territory – and over the detention in China of several US–based scholars.

Relations with China, always a balancing act, chilled further in 1999 when NATO planes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during air strikes against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. American officials said it was an accident; China expressed doubt, and the United States apologized unconditionally.

Despite their differences, the two countries are bound as never before by hundreds of billions of dollars in trade. China wants U.S. support to join the World Trade Organization this year and win its bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Senior officials on both sides said they want to make sure the incident does no damage to long–term relations.

In a letter delivered yesterday afternoon to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, US Ambassador Joseph Prueher twice used the words "very sorry."

The letter appeared to be a compromise to satisfy China's demand for a formal apology while accommodating Bush's refusal to offer one for what his government considered an accident.