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China Promises Releases of U.S. Crewmembers

Aired April 11, 2001 - 12:03   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And for our viewers just tuning in across the U.S. and around the world, we've had several hours of fast moving developments in the U.S.-China story. Time now to bring you up to date.

China today promised to release 24 detained American crew members of that crippled surveillance plane. A U.S. plane could leave Guam at any time to retrieve the U.S. personnel. Then they will fly back to Guam and then on to Hawaii. Eventually, the crew will end up at its home base at Whidbey Naval Air Station in Washington State.

The breakthrough came in a U.S. letter to Beijing in which the Bush team used the phrase "very sorry." It did, though, stop short of a full apology. The status of the spy plane itself remains unresolved, at least publicly. The U.S. does want the aircraft back.

And that is a broad overview of the situation. We're going to zero in now with the specifics. We're going to start with our CNN Beijing bureau chief, Rebecca MacKinnon. She joins us live now on the phone from Beijing -- Rebecca?

REBECCA MACKINNON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, this appears to be one of those situations where both sides are claiming victory. Chinese media and government officials are very much declaring that this is a foreign policy victory, that China was able to force the United States to say that it is sorry, not only sorry for the loss of pilot Wang Wei, who is still being searched for but presumed likely to be dead, and also very sorry that the U.S. airplane entered China's air space and that the landing did not have verbal clearance.

This is being played as a major victory. The Chinese state run television has already been reading out a commentary from the state run "People's Daily," which says, "The firm struggle by the Chinese government and people against U.S. hegemony has forced the U.S. government to change from its initial rude and unreasonable attitude to saying very sorry to the Chinese people."

So, the fact that the Chinese government did not get the word apologize in there, that it only got very sorry, is being glossed over in what is being declared as a true victory -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Rebecca, still, a big hurdle has been crossed here in that the two sides can agree so that the 24 crewmembers can come back to the U.S. But hardly are all the issues resolved here. What other talks still need to take place?

MCKINNON: Well, that's absolutely right, Daryn. There are going to be a round of talks that's going to, that are going to begin next week. China has made it very clear it does not consider this incident over by any means. It's releasing the crew now on what it calls humanitarian considerations but that China is demanding that the United States give it a satisfactory explanation of what happened.

It does not feel that it has received a satisfactory explanation, the U.S. agreeing to a meeting agenda beginning next week which would include discussion of the causes of the incident, possible recommendations whereby such collisions could be avoided in the future. And, of course, the U.S. wants the return of the EP-3 aircraft as soon as possible.

Now, China's goal in these discussions is going to be to try to get the United States to stop its reconnaissance missions near China's airspace or at least to secure some kind of agreement in which they are curtailed in some way -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Rebecca MacKinnon with the latest from Beijing, thank you -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Daryn, as Rebecca said, the United States would like that EP-3 plane returned, but it still sits damaged on a runway in China and according to a number of reports and sources, it is pilfered by the Chinese.

CNN military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre is at the Pentagon now with more on that -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, last week Pentagon officials had all but written off the idea they'd ever get this plane back. But this letter that went from Ambassador Prueher to the Chinese does, in fact, contain a provision that says that at this meeting that's supposed to be called next week, that they will develop a plan for the prompt return of the EP-3 which, as you said, sits on the runway there at the military airstrip on Hainan Island.

The commercial reconnaissance photographs that we've been able to purchase show the plane on the outside is intact, but it does show that line of seven vehicles alongside.

U.S. intelligence reports have said that they thought the Chinese had started taking things off the plane and perhaps loading them into some of those trucks. We have not been able to confirm that. China has only said simply that they had the right to do that.

But now the question becomes what kind of an agreement will we need, what kind of language will they have to come up with in order to get the Chinese to return that plane and also what kind of repairs would have to be done? The plane was very severely damaged. The Pentagon, the more they learned from the crew about the damage to the plane, the more they found out how difficult it was to land the plane and how difficult it will be to repair. There's always a possibility that it could be taken apart and flown out in a huge transport plane. That's something they're going to have to work on.

Meanwhile, sources here at the Pentagon indicate that within just a few minutes that commercial airliner, Continental airliner will be taking off from the airport in Guam to make what the Pentagon officials estimate will be a five or a five and a half hour flight to Hainan to pick up the crew.

The plan is to bring them back to Guam then transfer them to a military C17 transport plane for the trip to Hawaii, where the crew will get some rest and relaxation and also be debriefed, primarily to get their side of the story. U.S. officials want to hear exactly what happened from the crew's point of view -- Steve.

FRAZIER: At the Pentagon, Jamie McIntyre. Jamie, thank you. You've moved the story on to our next stop here as we turn around the world for more coverage on this. We're going to Marina Kamimura, who's at Guam where that plane that Jamie mentioned has been refueling and standing by for clearance to go. Marina is on video phone -- Marina, what can you tell us now about that plane?

MARINA KAMIMURA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Stephen. Well, the airport authorities have told us that they have given this plane the OK to push back a few minutes from now. After it pushes back, we expect it to be taxiing down this runway that you can see right behind me before it makes a U-turn and takes off on the 10,000 foot runway that they have here at Guam International Airport for its flight over to Hainan.

As Jamie said, they expect it to be a five and a half hour plane ride, something that normally takes around four hours, but because of the amount of fuel that they have on board probably taking that extra time to get there. Then they're expected to load up those 24 crew members, bring them back again here to Guam, but not to this airport, but to the Anderson Air Base here in northern Guam, where they expect to switch to a military plane that will take them back to Hawaii -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Marina Kamimura reporting from Guam, where America's day begins. We love to say that here.

KAGAN: Yeah, that's true.


KAGAN: We also did hear Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon say that these crew members will spend a number of days in Hawaii and already there is our correspondent Martin Savidge. He is at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. Marty, hello.


The sun just starting to come up here on the island of Oahu at Hickam Air Force Base, located right next door to Pearl Harbor. News of the impending release of the 24 crew members arrived here in the middle of the night or actually in the very, very early morning hours. But the military people here will tell you it's never too early to receive good news.

There has been no official confirmation here that, in fact, Hickam Air Force Base is going to be the first stop for these crew members to set foot on U.S. soil. They don't say that publicly. Privately they say it's likely to be the place because, well, for all the obvious reasons. It's on the way home. It is headquarter to the Pacific Command, which overseas the EP-3s and their crews, and it has the facilities here.

Now, since that time they've been working on the plans and the plans are basically fourfold. Number one, get the crew back on U.S. soil. Number two, to thoroughly debrief them and to thoroughly go over what happened in the air and also on the ground once the plane landed in China. This is something they have not been able to do as long as the crew has been under the detainment of the Chinese government.

And then third, they want to get the crew in for medical checkups. We believe that they've been taken care of, but they just want to make it a formality and be certain. And then after that, the very most important thing, reuniting them with their family members.

The process here expected to take two, possibly three days. It's not all just for the idea of debriefing them. There is also some emotional decompression that will be ongoing before they race back into the arms of their awaiting families.

There is going to be a ceremony. It's going to be very public. The military knows that it's very important not just for the crew members and their families, but also for the American public, which has been watching this drama unfold for nearly two weeks. We know all of that. The only thing we don't know is exactly when -- Daryn?

KAGAN: Martin Savidge in Honolulu. Martin, thank you. Of course, we also have heard mentioned, still many talks to take place between the Americans and the Chinese. For more on that, where the talks go from here and how the Americans and Chinese were able to even get to this point, let's check in with David Ensor. He is at the State Department today. David, hello.


Well, officials here are expecting the crew members to be released without any difficulty on the part of the Chinese. They think that that part of the chapter will be closed soon. They certainly hope so, obviously, but they also believe so.

As far as the letter, it's being called the letter of the two very sorries here because, of course, first, it has the text, in the text where Ambassador Prueher writes to the Chinese foreign minister that, "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 pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss."

And then goes on on another subject to also say the U.S. is very sorry. "We are very sorry," it says, "that the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but obviously very pleased the crew landed safely and we appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew."

Now, officials here do note that the word apology is not in the letter and that, in fact, the U.S. in no way implies any kind of fault in the accident that occurred 11 days ago over the South China Sea. So it is a letter that, as our correspondent in China pointed out, allows both sides to declare victory, in a sense. The U.S. says it's very sorry twice but it does not apologize.

The letter goes on to lay out what's next and that is the meeting next week, April 18th, between the U.S. and China. We don't have the details on the where and the level yet, but the discussion will be first, who was to blame for this accident, second, what recommendations can the two sides come up with to try to avoid collisions in the future and thirdly, what is going to be the plan for the prompt return of the aircraft.

Now, we are understanding now that U.S. officials believe that plane will, indeed, be returned promptly. There are various options, as Jamie at the Pentagon mentioned, for exactly how to go about doing that. But it's understood it will happen quite soon after that meeting starts -- Daryn.

KAGAN: David Ensor at the State Department, thank you. Also this note concerning the State Department. A briefing is scheduled for 1:00 P.M. Eastern. That is less than an hour from now and, of course, we'll be bringing it to you live here on CNN.



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