Hopes rise for agreement in spy plane stand-off

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Hopes of a breakthrough in the stand-off over the US spy plane crew held in China emerged last night as both sides were preparing a written "common understanding" as a possible prelude to their return. Some observers believe an agreement is imminent.

Hopes of a resolution to the stand-off over the US spy plane crew held in China rose last night as both sides were preparing a written "common understanding" as a possible prelude to their return. Some observers believe the crisis could be over this weekend.

Amid a flurry of diplomatic activity, it was revealed that US and Chinese officials were preparing a written statement on last Sunday's incident in which the US would repeat its regret but stop short of a full apology. It also emerged that a joint maritime commission set up three years ago to improve safety on the seas and in the skies could act as a 'neutral' body to oversee the issue ­ a move that underlines how much of this dispute is a matter of both sides saving face.

Though his language remained somewhat cautious, President Bush yesterday said progress was being made in negotiations for the release of the 24 men and women - shown for the first time on television last night in photographs taken by US diplomats. "We're working hard to bring them home through intense negotiations... and we think we're making progress," he said.

The Secretary of State, Colin Powell said the US and China were exchanging "precise ideas" for the release of the crew ­ held since a collision between a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter resulted in an emergency landing on Hainan Island. "I'm encouraged because there has been movement," said Mr Powell, who last night again met the Chinese Ambassador in Washington.

Following a briefing with Pentagon officials, Senator John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters that progress was being made in preparing a statement which would be passed to the Chinese government. There were reports that drafts of the document were being passed back and forth between both sides.

Asked if the letter was a final step towards a deal, he said: "I would say that this
letter is an integral part ­ I wouldn't characterise it as a deal ­ an integral part of the meeting of minds of our two governments as how... we should take steps by which our crew are returned."

China has so far not changed its official position. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "China's position is clear: the United States must admit full responsibility and apologise to the Chinese people."

US officials were permitted to make a second visit to the crew yesterday ­ this time without the presence of Chinese 'minders'. They were said to be in good health and "great spirits".

Brigadier General Neal Sealock, the US military attache in Beijing, said he and diplomats also checked that the crew had received books, toiletries and other supplies. "The crew is in great spirits. They are all together and are looking forward to being
released and returning home."

It emerged the crew were living in Chinese officers' quarters ­ two to a room, except for the three women, who were sharing a single room, and the aircraft commander, who was being held separately.

Mr Powell said the Chinese had agreed to allow the diplomats see the crew again today and that there was a general agreement to seeing them on a "regular basis" ­ although this phrase was seen by some as indicating that a swift conclusion to the stand-off may not be in sight.

One senior official was quoted anonymously last night as saying he believed both sides were close to an agreement but pointed out that while "enormous progress" had been made, the diplomatic work could unravel abruptly.