US officials meet crew as war of words goes on

Spy plane: Washington refuses to apologise, insisting collision was in international air space and accusing China of allowing incident to escalate
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US officials gave a muted welcome last night to China's decision to allow US diplomats to meet the crew of the spy plane forced to land on a Chinese island on Sunday. But they said their main objective was the swift and safe return of the 24 crew ­ and the EP-3E, equipped with America's most advanced surveillance technology.

The diplomatic dispute between America and China about surveillance activities over the South China Sea appeared to be cooling last night after China allowed diplomats access to the 24 American crew members who had been held incommunicado since Sunday. But the war of words between Beijing and Washington raged on, leaving some doubt over the intentions of both sides and fuelling speculation about political divisions in the two capitals.

Just hours before the meeting, which took place late last night, the US ambassador in Beijing, Joseph Prueher, had flatly refused a Chinese demand for an apology for the mid-air collision that downed a Chinese F-8 jet fighter, as well as damaging the US aircraft.

The ambassador also accused the Chinese of having been "all over" the EP-3E surveillance airplane despite American insistence that it should be treated as "sovereign territory".

"There is little doubt that they have been over the airplane," he said in one of a series of interviews on American breakfast television.

"We are sure that the crew is not on the airplane, and we have every reason to think that the Chinese have been all over the airplane." There were reports that the Chinese had removed equipment from the aircraft, but these were not confirmed.

Mr Prueher was speaking shortly after the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, had made his first public intervention in the dispute, blaming America for the collision and calling on it to end its surveillance flights over the South China Sea.

"We cannot understand why the United States often sends its planes to make surveillance flights in areas so close to China," he said, as quoted by the Xinhua news agency. "And this time, in violation of international law and practice, the US aircraft bumped into our plane, invaded Chinese territorial airspace and landed at our airport." Washington has insisted that the plane was in international airspace at the time of the collision.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry took direct issue with American claims of "sovereignty" for its plane.

"Based on Chinese law and international practice, we have the right to conduct an investigation," he said.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman later reinforced Mr Jiang's apportionment of blame. "The responsibility fully lies with the American side," he said. "We have full evidence for that," and went on scornfully: "If this plane is sovereign American territory, how did it land in China?"

He did not, however, adduce any evidence to contradict the American version that China had scrambled its two fighter planes with the express intention of intercepting the high-technology eavesdropper.

Chinese officials had held out the prospect of diplomatic access to the crew members the previous day, after President Bush warned that China would be violating diplomatic protocol if it did not grant diplomats "immediate access" to the crew.

In what was seen as a possible prelude to the meeting, the Pentagon had made known that it was withdrawing three warships from the vicinity 24 hours after announcing that they would remain in the area to "monitor the situation".

As the conflicting signals multiplied, observers in Washington and Beijing saw evidence of differences of opinion in both capitals about how to proceed.

Mr Jiang's strong words about responsibility were widely seen in Washington as intended primarily for domestic Chinese opinion, which has been especially sceptical of American intentions since the bombing by US jets of its embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

But China's ambitions to be seen as a responsible member of the international community and worthy of hosting the 2008 Olympics were seen as a factor that could limit its options.

In Washington, it was unclear how far the White House, the State Department and the US ambassador in Beijing (a Clinton appointee and former admiral in the US Pacific Fleet) were working in concert.

Yesterday, Mr Bush had reportedly rejected advice to telephone President Jiang with a direct appeal for the release of the plane and its crew, instead choosing to issue an uncompromising statement, and Mr Powell's tone was considerably milder than that of Mr Prueher, who made much of his Pacific military experience.

"I've been a Navy pilot for 35 years," he told CBS yesterday, "and I think the circumstances they ­ the Chinese ­ describe for the collision are extremely unlikely, including where the fault lies."