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U.S. accuses China over air collision

The EP-3 Aries II carries electronic surveillance equipment  

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- A collision between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft has led to Pentagon accusations that China is intercepting U.S. military aircraft in an "unsafe manner."

A U.S. spy plane made an emergency landing Sunday in China after it was clipped by a Chinese jet, the Pentagon said. (See map locating incident)

China is blaming the U.S. for the collision, which the Pentagon said happened over international waters.

The Chinese fighter crashed into the South China Sea and its pilot remains missing, according to Beijing.

Adm. Dennis Blair says U.S. Navy surveillance plane was in international airspace

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The U.S. Pacific Command told CNN that in the past two months Chinese officials had been told by their U.S. counterparts that U.S. planes were being intercepted in an "unsafe manner."

China's response, the Pentagon said, was "unsatisfactory."

The U.S. plane -- a Navy EP-3 Aries II -- landed on the Chinese island of Hainan. None of the 24 crew members were reported injured.

The U.S. is calling for the immediate return of the plane and crew and warned China not to board the secret high-tech aircraft because it is sovereign U.S. property.

"We've got assurances that our crew is safe and sound and that we'll get to see them soon," said Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China.

"We've got some people on the way down there tomorrow. And we'll continue to work hard both here and in Washington," Prueher added. "And it appears also the Chinese have lost an aircraft and we're sorry that occurred."

Aviation expert, Jim Eckes, managing director of Indoswiss Aviation, dismissed China's claim that the incident was the fault of U.S. pilots.

"Aviation protocol demands that the quicker plane take steps to avoid the larger, slower aircraft, which in this case was the EP-3 belonging to the U.S.," said Eckes.

The downed U.S. surveillance aircraft represents one of the most technologically advanced aircraft owned by the military, according to Eckes.

"This is a very, very sensitive piece of equipment and one the U.S. will not want sitting in Chinese territory," he told CNN.

U.S.-China ties tested

U.S. lawmakers warned the incident could strain diplomatic relations if not resolved quickly. "We are at a very important and delicate point in our relationship with the People's Republic of China and how this is handled will go a long way as to the future of that relationship," U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel said in an interview with CNN.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzo said two Chinese military planes were following the U.S. plane to monitor it.

The Chinese planes "were flying normally" about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of the Chinese island of Hainan when "the U.S. plane suddenly turned toward the Chinese plane," he said, in a statement. "The head and the left wing of the U.S. plane bumped into one of the Chinese planes, causing it to crash."

Chinese authorities are searching for their pilot, Zhu said.

Without China's permission, the crippled U.S. plane then entered Chinese air space and landed at 9:33 a.m. Sunday (8:33 p.m. Saturday ET) at the Lingshui airport on Hainan Island, he said.

"The direct cause to the crash of the Chinese plane is the U.S. plane violated flying regulations by suddenly turning toward the Chinese planes and bumping into one of the planes," Zhu said. "The U.S. side should bear full responsibility for the incident. China has protested to the U.S. side and reserved its right to pursue further on the issue of compensation for the Chinese damage."

But in Hawaii, Adm. Dennis C. Blair of the U.S. Pacific Command blamed the Chinese fighters, which he said were similar to F-16s, fly much faster and have more maneuverability than the EP-3, which is about the size of a Boeing 737.

"Big airplanes like this fly straight and level on their path, little airplanes zip around them," he said.

"Under international air space rules, the faster more maneuverable aircraft has obligation to stay out of the way of the slower aircraft.

"It's pretty obvious who bumped into who," Blair said. "I'm going on common sense now because I haven't talked to our crew."

Blair said the collision was likely an accident -- but that it reflected a "pattern of increasingly unsafe behavior" by the Chinese military.

"Intercepts by Chinese fighters over the past couple months have become more aggressive to the point that we felt they were endangering the safety of the Chinese and American aircraft," he said. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate-General in Hong Kong said the U.S. had offered China assistancein searching for its missing airman.

"We have been assured that all of our crew members are safe, and we understand that a Chinese aircraft and pilot are missing. We have offered any assistance necessary for the search and rescue effort," the spokeswoman said.

"We have asked Chinese authorities to respect the integrity of the aircraft and the well-being of the crew in accordance with international guidelines. We have asked for the immediate return of the aircraft and crew," she added.

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U.S. Pacific Command
U.S. State Department
U.S. Department of Defense
The Pentagon
U.S. Embassy in China
Chinese Government (in Chinese)
Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C.
Republic of China Government Information Office: Taiwan

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