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Chinese Release Americans from Hainan Island

Aired April 11, 2001 - 10:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Daryn Kagan. Let's now check on the latest coming out of China where it is now just after 10:00 p.m. in Beijing. The latest from Hainan Island.

While an agreement is at hand, the release of those detained 24 crew members remains just out of reach for right now. For the moment, the Bush administration has a commercial airline on standby and awaiting word on the nearby island of Guam.

The breakthrough was announced just about three hours ago. It followed the U.S. expression of deep regrets over the incident and the emergency landing of its crippled surveillance plane on Chinese soil on April 1st. There is no word yet on the return of the U.S. spy plane.

For the latest on this developing story, let's check in with our Beijing bureau chief Rebecca Mackinnon -- Rebecca.

REBECCA MACKINNON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, the Chinese side is hailing this as victory. The Chinese media is showing interviews with people on the street and around Beijing saying, "We've won. We've gotten the United States to apologize. We've gotten to them to say they're sorry. We've come out on top on this."

So very much the Chinese government is playing this as a victory. However, it's very interesting to note that in terms of the way in which the United States expressed that it was sorry, there was not any assumption of responsibility. The Chinese side had been insisting not only that the U.S. apologize but also that it take responsibility for the incident. But the way in which "I'm sorry" -- the way in which we are sorry was worded in the U.S. letter to the Chinese foreign ministry made it very clear that there was no assumption of responsibility going along with it.

They were apologizing for two things. One, very sorry to the Chinese people and to the family of the Chinese fighter pilot Wang Wei for his loss. Also, very sorry for the entry into Chinese airspace. The U.S. is pointing out that the crew felt that an emergency landing was required and entering into Chinese airspace was required in order to save their own lives.

The Chinese version of the statement is omitting that fact, merely saying that the United States has said it's very sorry for entering Chinese airspace. So there is a very big difference on that. Meanwhile, however, the U.S. is certainly focusing on the impending release of the 24 U.S. crew members. It's not clear when they will be released. But the U.S. ambassador Joseph Prueher, who has been the man in charge of negotiations here, came out and spoke about them little while ago. And here is what he had to say.


JOSEPH PRUEHER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: We're obviously delighted that the aircrew is going to be going home. The people of America should be very proud of this aircrew and the way they handled a very complex and difficult sudden in-flight emergency to safely land the airplane as well as how they comported themselves while they were here in -- being held in China.


MACKINNON: Now, the Chinese have made a very clear even though they say they are releasing the 24 U.S. crew members on, quote, unquote, "humanitarian grounds," this affair is not over, that there are going to have to be talks between the U.S. and China about exactly what happened, that the Chinese side is insisting still that the United States halt further surveillance flights near Chinese airspace, the U.S. acknowledging that China wants to discuss this but not in any way indicating there's an interest in doing so.

Clearly, all of these things up for negotiation. The Chinese still holding the plane. It's unclear at this point when and if it will be released. It's also clear, however, that that is going to have be determined after the negotiations get underway.

Back to you.

KAGAN: Rebecca, we heard the Chinese officials today say that there had to be procedures that took place before those 24 crew members were let go. Do you know what kind of procedures they are talking about and what the delay would be?

MACKINNON: Well, we asked foreign ministry spokesman that, what exactly these procedures were going to be. It's not exactly clear. The U.S. ambassador would not go into details either about exactly the sequence of events that is going to take place between now and the release. However, observers are assuming that there is going to be have to be some kind of procedure when comes to transfer of custody. There's probably some paperwork, visa issues in and out involved, various legalities that will have to be to be gone through, also landing rights for the U.S. plane, this kind of thing. However, people in China who I've been speaking to expect that we're likely to see them go within the next 24 hours.

KAGAN: Rebecca Mackinnon in Beijing, thank you -- Stephen.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: As we heard Rebecca say, this is not yet over. We do have an agreement. But the situation is not fully resolved. And President Bush is choosing his words very carefully today. For more on those words, we go to CNN White House correspondent Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Stephen, that is exactly right. The White House certainly welcoming this news, but Mr. Bush as well as senior aides still treating this as a very delicate moment as they await the actual release of those 24 crew members.

Now we understand that Mr. Bush received word that a deal had been struck at about 5:20 this morning. He got that word from his national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice. And then about an hour-and-a-half ago, he came here into this briefing room to deliver a very brief statement, the president not taking any questions. Again, the administration trying not to say very much right now until those crew members are actually on their way back to the United States.

Here now is what the president said pretty much in its entirety about an hour-and-a-half ago.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: 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 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.


WALLACE: And after that very short statement, the president kept to his normal schedule, heading to North Carolina. He's expected to land any minute now, where he will be touting his domestic agenda. Again, the message from the administration that it is still business as usual here, the president continuing to monitor developments with the standoff between Washington and Beijing, at the same time focusing on some of his domestic priorities.

How the first word, the first confirmation, of course, came from the White House earlier this morning that, yes, in fact the Chinese have agreed to release the crew members. And Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, put out a written statement earlier this morning. In that statement, he said, quote, "The U.S. ambassador received verbal assurances from the Chinese government that the aircrew will be allowed to leave promptly."

Now, the word yesterday, Stephen, from administration officials is that they had felt that they had done all they could do. Now we understand we are looking at some live pictures of President Bush landing in North Carolina.

He's expected to go to a middle school first to talk about his education reform plans. And then later in the day, he will be delivering a speech at East Carolina University to talk about his budget, that budget which he first delivered to lawmakers on Monday.

Stephen, not clear if we hear more from the president during these appearances in North Carolina. Again, the real message from the White House right now is it is watching the situation, watching the developments, waiting for, of course, the crew members to be on their way before they really say a bit more.


FRAZIER: Kelly, what should we make of the fact that the president is keeping all of this at the working level of the diplomatic apparatus that exists rather than stepping in himself?

WALLACE: Well, clearly throughout this, senior aides have said that there was always a possibility that they could move this up the ladder and have President Bush use the hotline and get on the phone and try and reach out to China's President Jiang Zemin. Clearly, though, the White House's message all along is that it wanted to keep this from its view from being what is viewed as an accident from turning into an international incident. And so the White House very much wanted to have this worked out through mid- to high-level diplomatic channels to see if in fact it could be resolved before having the two leaders have to step in, Stephen.

FRAZIER: At the White House, Kelly Wallace. Kelly, thank you very much.

The standoff between China and the United States not only became a test of diplomacy as you just heard, but also, from all appearances, a measure of semantics. For a closer look at the power of words now, we turn now to CNN national security correspondent David Ensor at the State Department -- David, good morning again.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Stephen. Before I get to the language of the letter, let me just mention that the U.S. officials here are saying that the word "promptly," the crew members leaving promptly, their understanding is that that does mean promptly. They don't think the Chinese have any further interest in arbitrarily delaying things.

They believe that barring weather or logistical problems, the crew will be leaving within the next 24 hours, perhaps the front end of that period of time. On the language of the letter, which is being called in this building, by the way, the "letter of the two very sorrys," first, there is that the United States is very sorry that there was the loss of life and an aircraft that President Bush and the secretary have expressed their sincere regret over missing pilot and aircraft and asks that that message be conveyed to Chinese people and the family of the pilot. "We are very sorry for their loss."

Secondly, although the United States believes that its plane landed in an emergency situation following all proper international regulations, nonetheless the letter says: "We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance." But of course, very pleased that the crew landed safely. "We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew."

The letter then goes on to the next steps. Of course, the remaining matter from the U.S. point of view is getting its plane back. On April 18, there will be a meeting -- we don't know yet at what level or where -- to discuss the causes of the incident, to discuss recommendations to avoid collisions in the future, and to develop a plan for the prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft. And the letter goes on to note that the U.S. government acknowledges that it knows the Chinese will raise the issue of these surveillance flights in international airspace along its border and will be ready to listen to Chinese on that issue, though officials here say don't expect any changes in those surveillance flight plans.


FRAZIER: David Ensor at the State Department this morning. David, thank you very much -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Of course, those 24 crew members are still very much on Hainan Island. For the latest from there, let's check in with Lisa Rose Weaver joining us by phone from there -- Lisa, hello.


Yes, the head of the U.S. diplomatic effort here in Hainan to push for the early release of the crew, General Neal Sealock left the hotel where he staying just a few minutes ago. As he left, he said he is going to the meeting with local Chinese officials at the Foreign Affairs Office. That is who we've been dealing with all of this time.

And when he met with them to discuss some of these procedural details of the crew's exit from Hainan that he was also hoping to meet with the crew members themselves. But at this point we have no way of knowing whether or not he is going to only meet with the Chinese or also with the crew members, Daryn.

KAGAN: And also, Lisa, you're not getting any indication as exactly when these 24 crew members will be released, the time frame perhaps?

WEAVER: No. No. There has been no word from here exactly when that is going to happen, whether it's in the next coming hours or couple of days. Now, if a chartered flight were to land here, as CNN has been reporting, the possibility of that, it's not clear if the crew could leave immediately after that plane lands or whether they will be dealing with other procedures before they're able to board, Daryn.

KAGAN: You mentioned those procedures. And we did hear Chinese officials talk about the procedures that had to take place before the crew members would be allowed to go. I think from the U.S. side, you have to wonder what's left to be done. Why not just let these people get on a plane and go home?

WEAVER: Well, yes. The Chinese side did not spell out here earlier exactly what the procedures -- exactly what happens before they can go. Now earlier, before the news of the release came, U.S. diplomatic officials here in Hainan were preparing documentation for their exit. They were considering the various kinds of documentation the crew might need to leave.

They did not tell us at the time exactly what they were doing. They said they would have to wait for word from the Chinese to find out if they even needed documentation. So they were preparing for all contingencies. But we just don't know exactly what those are, Daryn.

KAGAN: Lisa Rose Weaver by phone from Hainan Island. Lisa, thank you.

FRAZIER: So it depends what procedures means. It also depends what promptly means, as we just heard David Ensor point out. The Pentagon says that getting the crew home is its primary concern, but another matter, the fate of that U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane itself. Our Patty Davis is standing by at the Pentagon with the latest on plans for that -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Stephen, Pentagon officials say that they don't expect a quick resolution of the fate of that U.S. surveillance plane. But symbolically, they say that it's important that they get it back. They don't want to set a precedent whereby a country can just keep a U.S. plane in an incident like this.

Now, as far as the crew of 24 is concerned, the Pentagon is making plans. There are plans in place. There is a Continental 737 on the ground in Guam expected to take off in the next couple of hours or so we're told to bring that crew back to Guam. And then they would transfer to a C-17, a military plane, and fly on to Hawaii to be debriefed.

Now, the Continental 737 we're told is taking on a lot of fuel because this is a five-and-a-half hour trip to Hainan Island. They don't want to have refuel by the Chinese once they get into Hainan Island. They want to be able to load that crew, get back off into the air back to Guam and then off to Hawaii for that crew to be debriefed. Pentagon officials expecting that at least the pickup to occur within the next 24 hours.

Now as far as the debrief is concerned in Hawaii, what officials here are saying is when they get to that site, they want them to have a chance to take a shower, change clothes, get something to eat. Also, they will have physical exam, a psychological exam, operational debriefs, as well to find out exactly what they know as to what happened in that midair collision, also what they were able to destroy before the Chinese ended up boarding that plane.

Then after that, after the debrief, which is expected to take two to three days, the crew members who are based at Whidbey Island at the Naval Air Station there in Washington state, will head back there and be reunited with families. Military officials say that they are flying the families who wish to come to that base to Washington state to Whidbey Island when the time comes to have a welcome home ceremony of sorts with that crew.

But officials here are saying that they are telling the families right now you need to give this crew a little time. Once we get them back to Hawaii, they need to decompress. We need to find out what they know. And we need time for some closure to this whole ordeal, Stephen and Daryn.

FRAZIER: Patty, is it your sense that there is any capability to return that plane to the United States if it's not flyable, if it's not in flying condition?

DAVIS: Well, some things that have been talked about, if they can't get a repair crew in there to fix it and then get it back in air, they can perhaps clip the wings, stick it on a C-17 or something like that and fly it back or maybe even ship it out if they have to in pieces. So the U.S. making all sorts of plans.

And what military officials are saying, it really depends on what the Chinese will allow them to do, what the plane -- that is certainly at this point up to negotiations, Stephen.

FRAZIER: At the Pentagon, Patty Davis. Patty, thank you very much.



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