WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Wednesday he expects an American spy plane's crew to be released promptly as part of a deal in which the administration said it was "very sorry" that the aircraft landed on Chinese soil after a crash that killed a Chinese fighter pilot.
"This has been a difficult situation for both countries," Bush said on the 11th day of the standoff that threatened U.S.-Chinese relations. Bush and a U.S. letter outlining the deal stopped short of issuing a full apology or accepting blame for the collision, two points sought by the Chinese.
With plans under way for the crew's release, Bush said, "We are working on arrangements to pick them up and bring them home."
A senior 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 the island, the crew boarded and aircraft fueled.
The plane's future was murky, however. The letter said "development of a plan for prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft" would be one of several topics taken up at a joint meeting April 18.
Bush came to the White House briefing room after China and the United States announced a deal for the release of the American crew, who have been held on a Chinese island since the collision of their EP-3E plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet.
In a carefully negotiated statement, the United States said it was "very sorry" for the presumed death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, whose fighter jet collided with the spy plane April 1, and says the United States is "very sorry" that the American plane landed on Chinese soil without permission, though it notes that the plane was severely crippled.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration successfully resisted a Chinese demand that the letter say the plane violated Chinese airspace.
Bush told reporters the Chinese government had assured U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher "that the crew would leave promptly."
"This has been a difficult situation for both our countries," the president said. "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."
He said the American people and the relatives of the men and women who were detained "are proud of our crew and we look forward to welcoming them home."
The president spoke very briefly and did not respond to reporters' questions.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said U.S. officials were working with China on arrangements for the crew's departure.
The letter, which was written under Prueher's name, 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. They said their focus in talks was getting the crew back to American, and the fate of the plane was unclear.
The letter notes China's demand that the future of U.S. reconnaissance near China be discussed at the meeting. U.S. officials said there were no plans to end the practice of flying spy planes in international airspace near China, but refused to characterize the significance of the letter's statement while the crew was still detained.
Officials said the letter was substantially unchanged since it was offered to the Chinese several days ago.
At the insistence of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the United States refused to say the American plane had violated Chinese airspace.
"My government understands and expects that our air crew will be permitted to depart China as soon as possible," Prueher wrote.
"Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss," the letter said.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said the 24 crew members would be released as soon as "appropriate travel procedures" were completed, according to a statement read on television and radio. He cited humanitarian grounds for the decision.
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 early-morning announcement brought a predictable reaction from the families of the crew members.
"Yippee," exclaimed Amanda de Jesus of Long Beach, Calif., mother of crewman Josef Edmunds. She refused, in an interview on CBS' "The Early Show," to second-guess whether the release could have been arranged earlier. "All that mattered to me was getting my son back alive."
Fern Sonan of Lenhartsville, Pa., mother of Lt. Marcia Sonon, heard about her daughter's pending release on television and was waiting for a call from the Navy. "I think it's great. We're really proud of Marcia," she said, hurrying to get off the telephone.
The announcement came a day after President Bush seemed to be preparing Americans for a drawn-out ordeal. Uncertain whether the latest proposal would be accepted by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Bush cautioned: "Diplomacy sometimes takes a little longer than people would like. This administration is doing everything we can to end the stalemate in an efficient way."
For the first time, he called the standoff a stalemate, and other administration officials said privately the situation had not changed much since the weekend.
On a visit to Uruguay, Jiang said Tuesday that the two countries were capable of settling the dispute. But he also said he still wanted an apology.
On the Net:
Pentagon spy plane Web site: http://www.pacom.mil/
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