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China Says It Will Release Crew Members

Aired April 11, 2001 - 8:23   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Colleen, in two-and-a-half minutes we're expecting to hear from the President of the United States. CNN's White House correspondent Kelly Wallace is waiting for him right now in the White House Briefing Room -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, that is exactly right. President Bush to come here, deliver a brief statement before departing for North Carolina where he will be having some events to tout his domestic agenda. The president - clearly lots of good news here at the administration. The administration certainly welcoming this development.

We understand talking to a U.S. official that Mr. Bush was notified at 5:20 this morning by his National Security Adviser Dr. Condoleezza Rice that, yes, in fact, a deal had been reached, and that the Chinese have agreed to release those 24 crewmembers. We understand the president's statement is expected to mirror a bit of what White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in a written statement earlier today.

In that statement Ari Fleisher said, "The U.S. ambassador has received verbal assurances from the Chinese government, that the air crew will be allowed to leave promptly." Ambassador Prueher, that is the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, has delivered to the Chinese government a letter concerning this incident and we are working out with the Chinese government the arrangements for departure.

Now, yesterday senior administration officials were basically telling reporters that they felt that they had done everything they possibly could do. That they had presented to the Chinese everything that this administration was willing to do to secure the release of those 24 crewmembers and that the U.S. was, in fact, waiting for the Chinese to respond. Clearly we heard, Carol, from that news conference earlier today, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman talking about the U.S. being very sorry for this incident.

LIN: Kelly, I know in about 60 seconds the president is about to enter the room. We've to got the shot ready. But very quickly, China is still making demands, still saying that this is not over yet. Apparently, the United States is talking about a meeting April 18?

WALLACE: Absolutely. At that meeting a number of issues to be discussed, including the Chinese concern about having these surveillance flights going along over the Chinese coast. We heard the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman saying that the Chinese want to see those flights come to an end. Clearly, a big question for the administration will be, is the U.S. willing to stop those flights?

So far the administration has said that it believes it is entitled to do what it can do over international waters. And, again, here now, the president coming into the Briefing Room to deliver a brief statement before heading off to North Carolina. As you can see, some of the President's top advisers just entering the room. His national security adviser, his chief of staff, and his council.

Here now, the president. Let's listen.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF U.S.: Good morning. I'm pleased to be able to tell the American people that plans are underway to bring home our 24 American servicemen and women from Hainan Island. This morning, the Chinese government assured our American ambassador that the crew would leave promptly. We are working on arrangements to pick them up and to bring them home.

This has been a difficult situation for both our countries. 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.

I appreciate the hard work of our ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, and his entire embassy team who worked tirelessly to solve this situation. The American people, their families, and I are proud of our crew and we look forward to welcoming them home. Thank you.

LIN: The President of the United States not taking any questions from a waiting press corp. Very brief statement. Basically saying that plans are moving forward to bring the American crew home from Hainan, China. He assured - he was assured by Chinese officials that the crew would be able to leave promptly once some paperwork, such as passports, were arranged for the crew.

He acknowledged - President Bush acknowledged that this has been a difficult situation for both China and the United States. CNN's Kelly Wallace in the White House Briefing Room right now.

Kelly, a very different tone by the President of the United States. Very different than it was 11 days ago regarding China.

WALLACE: Absolutely. Certainly, that first day we heard the president coming out with a bit of a tough tone, tough talk, saying that China must go ahead and release those 24 crewmembers. Interesting, though, Carol, as you pointed out, a very brief statement by Mr. Bush. The President talking again that the Chinese have agreed to promptly release those crewmembers.

He also said this has been a difficult situation for both the United States and China. Again, as he has done before, he expressed sorrow for the loss - the apparent loss of life of that Chinese pilot and expressed his prayers going to the Chinese pilot's family. He did not mention, though, which is mentioned in that letter, that the U.S. government has been to China expressing sorrow or saying its very sorry for landing at a Chinese base without getting any warning, even though the U.S. firmly believes that it had a mayday signal and so it was authorized to go ahead and land under international laws.

Clearly, the president, though, did not take any questions. The President choosing his words very carefully. Clearly, this situation is not fully resolved. There are still negotiations, of course, to get those crewmembers released and back to the United States. The president clearly not trying to say too much. Trying to just sort of put out what he needs to, let those negotiations take place.

Of course, Carol, we know there will be many questions to come, such as, many conservative lawmakers in Congress who think the administration should have taken a tougher stance against China. Even other less conservative moderate lawmakers who would like the administration to take some action, such as maybe not approving China's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. Maybe not supporting permanent normal trade relations with China. Maybe even having the President cancel his trip planned this fall to Beijing.

So, there will be lots of time for questions. Clearly, right now the administration expressing its welcome news that this - these crewmembers will be released, saying it's been a difficult situation and now letting the final negotiations take place -- Carol.

LIN: Very sensitive time and certainly until the U.S. crew makes it back to U.S. soil. Thank you very. Kelly Wallace reporting live from the White House with the president's remarks -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: And of course as soon as this story broke just a little over 2 1/2 hours ago, U.S. officials were saying that the most important thing for them is the return of the 24 crew. But China still does have the EP-3 spy plane. It is still on Hainan Island. And that is where CNN's Lisa Rose Weaver is for us this morning -- Lisa.

LISA ROSE WEAVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, as you said, the EP-3 surveillance plane is still here on Hainan Island. It's not clear from the statements made earlier by the - by Mr. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Foreign Affairs Department here in Hainan exactly how and when the return of that plane is going to be negotiated.

Meanwhile, again, we don't know the exact time that the 24 air crewmembers will be returning home. That the Chinese official rather said that some procedures had to be gone through first. He didn't go into detail about what those were.

We've been trying to get word on where and where the U.S. diplomats on the ground here are and what they're doing. Earlier today, they had been waiting for word from the Chinese about meeting, again, with the crew members. They were successful the last couple of times in being able to, with a fair amount of ease, meet with the -- meet with the Americans in Chinese custody. We don't know where they are now, whether they are trying to meet with them, how much time there will be between now and the time and the Americans leave and what kind of contact they will have with the U.S. officials on the ground.

Earlier, a couple of hours ago the Chinese side referred to the letter that the United States conveyed to China. Earlier today that was delivered by the Chinese ambassador in Beijing. He was citing the letter, saying that the United States is very sorry for entering China's airspace and for landing without clearance, without verbal clearance from air traffic controls.

He also reiterating the United States apologized to the family of Wang Wei. Wang Wei is the pilot who went down in his F-8 jet fighter after the collision, now more than one week ago. This situation is certainly not all over; the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing said the two sides will meet to discuss things like preventing an incident like this happening in the future and also finding a way to -- for the U.S. -- from China's perspective -- for the U.S. to stop reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea. That's from China's perspective, a very vital point in all this. So, certainly, some very important steps made tonight, but still some work to be done.

MCEDWARDS: All right, CNN's Lisa Rose Weaver on Hainan Island. Our special coverage continues in just a moment. Stay with CNN; we'll be right back.



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