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U.S/China Standoff: U.S. Crew Members to be Released

Aired April 11, 2001 - 07:30   ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: The Chinese government has announced that, under humanitarian grounds, it is agreeing to release the 24 members of the crew of that U.S. spy plane that made an emergency landing on Hainan Island after completing necessary procedures -- what the Chinese government calls necessary procedures. We do not have a timetable for the release yet.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry says that it is satisfied with the language that was used in a letter expressing that the U.S. was "very sorry."

And CNN's Eileen O'Connor is at the White House for us right now with a copy of that letter and the language that was used -- Eileen.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we now do have the letter from the White House.

And it says, basically: "Dear Mr. Minister, on behalf of the United States government, I now outline steps to resolve this issue" -- this letter from Ambassador Prueher to the Chinese minister of foreign affairs.

And he says: "Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of the pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss."

Interesting, Colleen, they also say something that the Chinese are interpreting a bit differently in this next paragraph: "Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures. We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely. We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew."

They also outline some steps right now to further resolve this, saying: "We have agreed to the following actions. Both sides agree to hold a meeting to discuss the incident. My government understands and expects that our aircrew will be permitted to depart China as soon as possible."

"The meeting," however, "would start April 18, 2001." They also say that "the meeting agenda would include discussion of the causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future, development of a plan for prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft and other related issues. We acknowledge your government's intentions to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting.

And this is "Sincerely, Joseph W. Prueher."

Now, again, Colleen, the U.S. interpretation is not what the Chinese interpretation is about that expression of sorrow over entering Chinese airspace. As you see in this letter, the English version as it's the same, really, just translated into Chinese.

According to the U.S., in the English, what they're saying is, basically: We're sorry that we landed without verbal permission.

But the preceding sentences indicate that this was an emergency landing. And all along, U.S. officials have said: Look, you don't need verbal permission to land in an emergency distress call. And the pilot had indicated a mayday call.

Also, another interesting point that's different here is that they talk about the fact that they -- the U.S. says that: "We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting."

But, again, while China says that they are insisting that those reconnaissance missions end, a U.S. official says that their position all along is that these are legitimate missions, they are allowed to happen over international waters, and that they are necessary to -- for security in the region -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, CNN's Eileen O'Connor at the White House, thanks -- Carol.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Colleen, let's go back to China to the island of Hainan, where that U.S. crew is still being held -- Lisa Rose Weaver joining us now by videophone.

Lisa, do you have a better understanding now under what terms or what are these procedures that need to be followed in order for the U.S. crew to be released and be sent home?

LISA ROSE WEAVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, based on what the -- what the Chinese side expressed just now in this press conference, it really didn't spell out exactly what has to be done before the crew of 24 are able to go home.

It is clear that certain procedures -- that's all the detail they really gave, have to be -- have to -- have to go forth before they can really be released, so that a basic step here seems to have been -- rather, agreement on a basic step seems to have been reached: the United States expressing remorse and sorrow over the loss of the pilot, over the fact that the surveillance craft entered Chinese airspace and made a landing without verbal -- without a verbal go- ahead by the Chinese as a result of that collision -- but perhaps for details to come out on when the crew will be released, further work will probably have to be done at the diplomatic level.

LIN: We were just hearing more details about this letter that was sent to the Chinese officials in terms of how the -- how the Americans are characterizing the landing -- that they're saying that this was an emergency procedure, but that they do regret that, in the process of that, that they had to enter Chinese airspace. And, therefore, you know, it had an impact on Chinese sovereignty.

The Chinese seem to have a very different take on that phraseology there. Could you explain that to us?

WEAVER: Well, what came out of the press conference this evening didn't really describe the exact phraseology or the difference of understanding in this. They did, however -- the official did reiterate that the Chinese see the issue as having to do with China's national sovereignty. It mentioned that the -- China would like to see the reconnaissance flights stopped.

This is going to a point a contention with the Chinese. It's been ongoing for some time. So there were no details in language, but rather a repetition of China's point of view on this topic.

LIN: Lisa, did they say anything about the future of the Navy plane that's still sitting on the tarmac at the airport there?

WEAVER: No, they didn't mention that, which is one indication of one of the things that's going to have to be solved with -- as a result of further negotiations. The plane has been there ever since the collision more than a week ago.

And it's been unclear to us here on the ground, during these meetings between the U.S. officials here and the Chinese officials, how far they've been able to push on the issue of the plane. They've been -- they've emphasized that their main point here is to release the crew of the 24 -- to release the 24 crew members as quickly as possible. It's just not clear how far work toward getting the plane released is happening here.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Lisa Rose Weaver, reporting live via videophone from Hainan Island in China -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right. We're receiving word from Washington now that U.S. President George Bush will be making a statement at 8:05 Eastern Time. And we, of course, will bring it to you as soon as it happens.

In the meantime, in our Washington bureau, we have Sandy Berger, a key player in these types of issues in the Clinton administration.

Thanks for being here, Mr. Berger.


MCEDWARDS: All right. So this, according to the Chinese, is not over. The U.S. acknowledges there's a meeting to be held. It has proposed a date of April 18 to talk about more of these issues. What is the U.S. going to want to get out of that meeting?

BERGER: Well, first of all, of course, most importantly, our crew will be coming home and coming home presumably today or tomorrow. And that's obviously a welcome development.

I think this meeting will talk about perhaps rules of the road here: a little more clarity with respect to what happens in the skies, as we did back in '98 with our ships at sea. But, mainly, it's a bit of a face-saving device for the Chinese, to suggest that we are going to talk about these missions at a subsequent date.

MCEDWARDS: But the U.S. is going to want to have those reconnaissance flights resumed, correct?

BERGER: I certainly assume so, yes.

MCEDWARDS: So how does it go about doing that in this kind of environment?

BERGER: Well, I think -- I'm sure there will be a review by the Navy of the conduct of these flights and whether any adjustments have to be made. But I don't believe that they will be suspended.

MCEDWARDS: Is it going to be very important or not important to have the two sides actually come to some sort of an agreement on what happened and who was -- quote -- "at fault"?

BERGER: I think the most important developments have happened today. I mean, you have the Chinese taking the long view here, agreeing to release the crew. You have a letter from Joe Prueher, our ambassador, saying we're very sorry for the fact that this incident happened.

But it's not, I think, an apology. We've seen -- we've been heading in this direction. We've seen Secretary Powell go from "regret" to "sorrow" to "sorry" to now "very sorry." So a little bit like Hansel and Gretel, if you followed the trail of bread crumbs, it leads to this point.

MCEDWARDS: I'm wondering if you've got some insight into how this works at a diplomatic level. I mean, what are the chances that there are deals made here in terms of China's entrance into the World Trade Organization -- any sort of agreement on what kinds of weapons the U.S. might provide to Taiwan, which China considers a rogue province and has been very concerned about the U.S. being involved in arming for its own protection?

I mean, are deals struck in this kind of situation: "You release our 24 crew; we'll agree to take a look at this issue," but China says, "We want this, this, and this in return"?

BERGER: I'm not aware of any such side agreements. Obviously, it's something that we'll want to ask -- you'll want to ask Secretary Powell and others. I guess I would be surprised if there were. I hope that we've not made any precommitments on Taiwan arm sales or other issues. I think this probably has been contained in the four corners of this incident.

It's obviously taken a while for the Chinese to work out their internal politics. You know, this plane kind of dropped -- this hot potato drops out of the sky, literally, on the Chinese, and it's taken them some time to find a way to get a consensus inside on their release, with the help of some words from the United States.

MCEDWARDS: In the letter that was sent from the ambassador, in the mentioning of that April 18 proposed meeting, one of the things that he suggested could be discussed was the return of the EP-3 plane. How important is it to the United States to get that plane back?

BERGER: Well, I think it's important, although I don't think it's, at this point, as critical as it was. The plane has obviously been examined by the Chinese. Some of the equipment was destroyed. Whatever else has been left, I think has been adequately studied by the Chinese. So whatever intelligence value they could get from the plane, I think they've probably gotten it already.

MCEDWARDS: And what do you see, Mr. Berger, based on your experience? I mean, what do you see the implications of this whole incident being in terms of relations between the United States and China?

BERGER: Well, I think, you know, in the short term, obviously, there is some rawness, I think, on both sides among the Chinese people and among the American people. This has been a kind of emotional issue on both sides. But I think, in fact, what happened here, in the midst of a very delicate situation, is that a quiet diplomacy prevailed.

The Chinese did take the long view of our relationship. And those voices that understood the importance of good relations with the United States and the West ultimately prevailed. So I don't think this should, in the long term, have an adverse relationship -- an impact on the relationship. I think it indicates that we can resolve problems when we're serious about it and point towards a common objective.

MCEDWARDS: All right, Sandy Berger, thanks very much -- Sandy Berger coming to us from Washington. He was the national security adviser under the Clinton administration. We appreciate your time.

BERGER: Thank you.


LIN: Colleen, we just got an update out of the White House that President Bush's remarks will, in fact, occur at 8:25 a.m. Eastern. That's about 20 minutes later than previously reported. And, as soon as he does make those remarks, we will bring those to you live.

In the meantime, obviously, this has been very good news for the family members of the 24 crew members on that Navy plane. In fact, joining us on the telephone right now is Cristina Mellos. She is the aunt to Nicholas Mellos, who is an aviation machinist's mate with the Navy, and is right now in Hainan, China.

Cristina, can you hear me?


LIN: Well, congratulations. What was your reaction when you heard


MELLOS: Oh, I'm just thrilled. I don't know. I don't even know if I'm standing on the ground. That's how thrilled I am.


LIN: Well, how did you hear the news?

MELLOS: Well, we had an idea ever since yesterday this might happen.

LIN: Really? Did somebody call you from Washington?

MELLOS: Well, I'm not going to get into that.

LIN: All right.

MELLOS: But we weren't sure. So this morning, the first thing, I put on CNN, and that's what hear, the breaking news.

LIN: Well, good for you.


LIN: Have you been able to hear from Nicholas during this past 11 days?

MELLOS: Well, we sent him one e-mail. The family sent one e- mail and that was that.

LIN: And any messages back yet?

MELLOS: Not yet.

LIN: All right. What -- do you mind if I ask you, what did you say to Nicholas to encourage him during this time?

MELLOS: Yes. We love him and we're waiting for him.

LIN: All right. Is there anything in his experience with the military or even in his personal life that would prepare him for something like this?

MELLOS: Yes. He's been with the Navy for almost 30 years. So he was well prepared.

LIN: And he's pretty young, isn't he? MELLOS: No, he's not young. He's 46 years old.

LIN: Oh, one of the more mature and older members on the crew.


LIN: What did he tell you about the nature of these missions as he was leaving? Would he ever say anything as a matter of routine?

MELLOS: No, he never, ever talked about anything that he was doing.

LIN: Were you ever worried?

MELLOS: But we have -- we had an idea that, you know, they were missions that we shouldn't know about.

LIN: Well, while he has been there for the last week and a half, what do you think he's missed the most while he's been gone?

MELLOS: Probably -- I don't know, just being free, I guess.

LIN: Yes. Have you thought about how you're going to be meeting up with him and the first thing that you might be saying to him?

MELLOS: No, we haven't even had a chance to even think about that.

LIN: What about the rest of the family: any plans being made?

MELLOS: Everybody's just thrilled. We're very happy and thank God for it.

LIN: Oh, I'm sure. All right, well, good news.


LIN: Glad that CNN could deliver it this morning with breaking news -- Cristina Mellos, the aunt to Nicholas Mellos with the EP-3 Navy plane on the island of Hainan, hopefully coming home soon.



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