WASHINGTON -- The United States on Wednesday refused to apologize to China for an incident in which a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet.
"The United States doesn't understand the reason for an apology," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. "Our airplanes are operating in international airspace, and the United States did nothing wrong."
Fleischer said U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher was summoned to a meeting earlier Wednesday with the Chinese foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, in Beijing. Tang demanded an apology for the incident and Prueher refused, Fleischer said.
"He reiterated what the president said yesterday about President Bush's desire to end this situation, to allow our men and women to come home and have the plane returned as well," Fleischer said.
China maintains the crew of 24, which made an emergency landing after the collision Sunday, is being held in "protective custody" and that the United States should apologize for the incident that landed them there.
"This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries," Bush said Tuesday. "To keep that from happening, our servicemen and women need to come home."
U.S. diplomatic representatives met Tuesday with the crew members on China's Hainan Island and reported them to be in good health. Chinese officials refused to allow the American officials to meet alone with the crew members and have not allowed them to contact their families in the United States.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, using harsher language than the White House, called the meeting a positive step but said the crew remained in "detention."
"They're being held incommunicado under circumstances that I don't find acceptable," Powell said. "The Chinese have said they're being protected -- I don't know from what. In my judgment, they're being detained."
The Chinese on Wednesday raised the volume of their call for an apology with President Jiang Zemin making the demand for the first time publicly.
"The U.S. side should apologize to the Chinese people," Jiang said in Beijing before leaving on a visit to Latin America, according to the Xinhua News Agency. "The United States should do something favorable to the smooth development of China-U.S. relations, rather than make remarks that confuse right and wrong and are harmful to the relations."
Prior to Jiang's statement, which came in the middle of the night in Washington, Powell told reporters:
"We have nothing to apologize for. We did not do anything wrong. Our airplane was in international air space, an accident took place, and the pilot, in order to save 24 lives, including his own, under circumstances we now have determined must have been hair-raising, safely got that plane on the ground."
The Navy EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance collided with the Chinese jet over the South China Sea. U.S. officials said the Chinese plane rammed the spy plane; China blamed the collision on the U.S. plane and said it was subject to Chinese control and inspection because it landed in China without permission.
U.S. officials said Wednesday the crew indicated they managed to destroy at least some of the highly sensitive electronic intelligence-gathering equipment and data on board the plane before it landed. It was unclear how much of an intelligence bonanza the Chinese might enjoy if they should keep the plane.
Shortly after the incident, U.S. officials said they believed one of the EP-3E's four engines was damaged in the collision. On Tuesday they said the damage was more extensive, including damage to the nose section, which contains radar equipment.
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