BEIJING (AP) China on Wednesday said it would release the 24 detained crew members of a U.S. spy plane it has held for 11 days, but indicated it would hold the plane pending further talks. The end to the dramatic superpower stalemate came after President Bush sent China a letter saying the United States is "very sorry" for the plane's unauthorized landing and the death of a Chinese pilot.
Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said the crew would be released "on humanitarian grounds" as soon as "appropriate travel procedures" were completed. A senior Bush administration official said the White House expected the crew to be released late Wednesday, noting that it would take several hours to get a U.S. plane to China's Hainan island, the crew boarded and aircraft fueled.
"It won't be long," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said. "The procedures are already under way." He added that "the Chinese side has all rights to conduct comprehensive investigation into the foreign reconnaissance plane."
At the Pentagon, officials speaking on condition of anonymity said arrangements were in place for a commercial U.S. airliner to fly from the Pacific island of Guam to pick up the 24 Americans on Hainan and fly them to Hawaii after a brief stopover at Guam. The welcoming ceremony for the crew is likely to be held at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state later this week, the officials said.
The crew of the high-tech EP-3E U.S. Navy surveillance plane has been held on Hainan since April 1. The plane made an emergency landing there after an in-flight collision with a Chinese fighter jet. The Chinese pilot is missing and presumed dead.
China had demanded an apology. The letter U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher delivered Wednesday afternoon to the Chinese Foreign Ministry twice used the words "very sorry." The letter appeared to be a complex linguistic compromise worked out during days of arduous negotiations to satisfy China's demand for a formal apology while also accommodating Bush's refusal to offer one for what his government believed to be an accident.
Immediately after the letter's release, though, Chinese translations of its wording differed.
Sun, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the letter expressed "shenbiao qianyi" translated as deep apology or regret but he was not reading directly from the text as he spoke. A copy of the Chinese-language letter released by the U.S. Embassy didn't use the same term, saying instead that Bush expressed "feichang wanxi" extreme sympathy to the Chinese people and the family of the missing pilot. It also says Bush was "feichang baoqian" extremely sorry that the U.S. Navy plane landed without permission.
"Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss," said the letter, which was released by the White House in English.
China has accused the U.S. pilot of illegally entering Chinese territory by making the emergency landing without obtaining permission in advance, and the letter goes on to say Washington is "very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance." But at the insistence of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the United States refused to say the American plane had violated Chinese airspace.
The American letter expressed appreciation for "China's efforts to see to the well-being" of the crew.
The letter also sets up an April 18 meeting, whose agenda will include arrangements for release of the EP-3E reconnaissance plane. U.S. officials are operating under the assumption that the Chinese have stripped the plane of sophisticated surveillance equipment.
"My government understands and expects that our air crew will be permitted to depart China as soon as possible," the letter delivered by Prueher said.
Speaking later in the day, President Bush said "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," Bush said, adding that he looks forward to welcoming the crew home.
Relatives of the 24 U.S. crew members who have been detained on a Chinese island expressed joy, relief and some skepticism at the news that the two countries had reached a deal to free them.
"We're very pleased," said Shirley Crandall, stepmother of Navy seaman Jeremy Crandall, from her home in Loves Park, Ill. "My heart is just pounding. We're very excited."
She said she and her husband, Tom Crandall, learned of the pending release through a flurry of calls from news media, adding that the family was awaiting a call from government officials.
"We're not saying much yet because we haven't had it verified by the Navy. We want to hear it from them."
In the hours before the announcement, China had appeared to be readying its public whose outrage has been whipped up by increasingly shrill anti-U.S. comments in state media for ending the standoff. State television reported a statement by Powell saying Washington was "sorry" that the spy plane entered Chinese airspace without permission to make an emergency landing. And a Chinese admiral was quoted as warning that the nation might have to accept the death of the missing pilot.
Experts had said a key condition for winning the release of the crew would be an announcement on the fate of the pilot whose F-8 collided with their EP-3E surveillance plane. State media have lionized the pilot as a patriot who crashed defending his country.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Defense Department released more details aimed at backing up its argument that the U.S. plane was not to blame for the collision. A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the crew has reported that the Chinese fighter made two close passes before the collision, bolstering the argument that its pilot was recklessly aggressive.