U.S. aircraft collides with Chinese fighter, forced to land
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- A U.S. reconnaissance plane carrying a crew of 24 collided with a Chinese fighter Sunday, forcing the U.S. craft to make an emergency landing in the People's Republic of China.
Blaming the United States for the incident, Chinese officials said their fighter crashed into the South China Sea.
The United States called for the immediate return of the high-tech plane and the 24 crew members, none of whom were injured. U.S. officials last heard from the pilot immediately after the plane landed on Hainan Island.
"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."
Crash may complicate U.S.-China ties
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," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, 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 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."
The U.S. version of the story assesses no blame. Pentagon officials said the U.S. maritime patrol aircraft was itself on a routine surveillance mission when it was intercepted by the two Chinese fighters at 9:15 a.m. (local time) Sunday (8:15 p.m. Saturday ET).
Regarding the Chinese report that the U.S. plane hit the Chinese aircraft, one U.S. military official said, "We don't know the facts." Another stressed that the incident appeared to be accidental.
'Proper treatment' given to U.S. crew
After colliding with one of the Chinese aircraft, the EP-3 sent a distress signal and diverted to a Chinese military airfield on Hainan.
"The concern is for the air crew more than anything else," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley said in Washington. "We want to get them back."
Zhu added that China "has given proper treatment" to the U.S. crew members, but "reserves its right to pursue further on the issue of U.S. plane entering Chinese air space and landing at Chinese airport without Chinese authorization."
Quigley expressed concern about the fate of the EP-3, a secret military surveillance plane. "We need to make sure everyone understands the plane is sovereign U.S. property," Quigley said. "It is not subject to boarding or seizure."
The U.S. Navy's Pacific Command in Honolulu, Hawaii, said its last contact with the EP-3's crew came immediately after the plane landed. The crew reported no injuries to any of the 24 military personnel, which included 22 members of the Navy, one member of the Air Force and one Marine.
U.S. officials are working through the U.S. Embassy in China to arrange for the return of the aircraft and its crew. They are also seeking China's help in repairing the EP-3.
Prueher met with China's vice foreign minister Sunday and held an "initial discussion to resolve the situation," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
"I think we'll be busy with it for the next day or so. We're trying to get it sorted out," Prueher said.
The United States plans to send officers from the U.S. Embassy and consulate in Guangzhou, China, to Hainan Monday morning (Sunday night EDT) to meet with the U.S. crew members.
The plane is part of a squadron based on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, and was deployed to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan, which is typical for P-3s, said Kimberly Martin, public affairs officer for Whidbey Naval Air Station.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who was briefed on the mishap overnight, returned to the White House from Camp David, Maryland, earlier than scheduled on Sunday afternoon, for weather-related reasons, the White House said.
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