Sources: Diplomats meeting with U.S. crew
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. diplomats were allowed to meet with the crew of a grounded U.S. spy plane Tuesday for the first time since it landed in China.
The meeting began about 11:35 p.m. in the Chinese city of Haikou (11:35 a.m. EDT), State Department officials said. It was not yet clear whether the meeting would result in the crew's release after more than two days on the Chinese island of Hainan.
Their EP-3 Aries II made an emergency landing on Hainan on Sunday after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter that was shadowing it over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot ditched his plane and was still missing Tuesday.
The Pentagon has warned China that the plane, which is packed with sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment, is sovereign territory that should not be boarded by Chinese troops. But Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Chinese troops have boarded the plane and were taking equipment.
Chinese officials repeated their argument Tuesday that the United States is to blame for the incident.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin demanded U.S. officials accept full responsibility for the collision and halt all surveillance flights near China's coast. The United States must "bear full responsibility" for the incident, the official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.
The U.S. says the collision was an accident and the plane was on a routine surveillance mission in international air space. Bush administration officials said Tuesday they have no plans to apologize and downplayed Beijing's call for an apology.
Reports from Chinese sources indicated the U.S. crew was taken off the plane and separated. A Chinese source told CNN they were being held individually, but did not say where or under what conditions.
U.S. President George W. Bush demanded the prompt return of the plane on Monday, but there was no indication that the crew, which includes three women, would be handed over to the visiting diplomats.
While U.S. officials have complained that China is slow in responding to diplomatic contacts, it's not unusual for China's bureaucratic system to take a long time to make decisions, especially where the military or national security concerns are involved.
Bush offered Monday to help the Chinese search for the missing fighter pilot, but China rejected that offer: Three U.S. warships that had been traveling to the collision site were leaving the South China Sea on Tuesday.
No ordinary plane, China says
Meanwhile, Prueher said there was "little doubt" that the Chinese have been aboard the damaged Aries.
"We are sure that the crew is not on the airplane, and we have every reason to think that the Chinese have been all over the airplane," Prueher said.
A Pentagon official said Monday that the crew started to destroy sensitive equipment before the plane landed in Chinese territory, but the official did not know how much was dismantled.
China has rejected U.S. claims that the Aries is sovereign territory.
"The plane we're talking about is not an ordinary aircraft, but a military reconnaissance plane that operated against rules and rammed a Chinese plane in the air space above the sea near China, then entered Chinese air space without China's permission and landed on a Chinese airport," a foreign ministry spokesman said.
"According to relevant Chinese laws and international law, China has the complete right to investigate this incident. It's the right that belongs to any sovereign nation," he added.
Incident comes at difficult time
The collision comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-China relations. Hard-liners in both countries are urging their governments to take a tougher line toward each other.
The Bush administration is trying to redefine the relationship between China and the United States from that of a "strategic partner" to a "strategic competitor." Since taking office in January, Bush has toughened the U.S. policy toward China on human rights and religious freedom.
The administration also is considering whether to sell destroyers equipped with the advanced Aegis air defense radar system to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
In addition, a senior Chinese army officer recently defected to the United States, and Beijing is holding two U.S. scholars -- one a Chinese-born U.S. citizen detained on unspecified charges, another a U.S. resident accused of spying.
Officials from both countries say interceptions like the one that occurred off Hainan on Sunday -- Saturday night, in Washington -- are routine. But collisions are not.
Jiang wants surveillance flights stopped
In a statement carried by China's official Xinhua news service, Jiang said he "cannot understand" why U.S. surveillance flights come so close to Chinese territory.
"This time, in violation of international law and practice, the U.S. plane bumped into our plane, invaded Chinese territorial air space and landed at our airport," Jiang said.
China says the American pilot caused the crash by suddenly veering into the Chinese jet, one of two sent up to follow the plane. But U.S. military authorities say it was more likely that the faster, lighter Chinese jet brushed against the slower, propeller-driven spy plane.
A U.S. official told CNN events leading into Tuesday evening Washington time -- Wednesday morning in Beijing -- would be critical in determining whether the standoff would cause any lasting damage to U.S.-China relations.
"Our people need to see the crew and need to see them soon," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
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