US Prepares to Remove Damaged Spy Plane from China
The United States will hire at least one giant Soviet-designed cargo plane to transport a crippled US Navy surveillance aircraft out of China but the operation could take weeks, US officials said on Tuesday.
Spokesmen at the Defense and State departments said Washington had agreed to China's demand that the EP-3E aircraft, damaged in an April 1 collision with a Chinese fighter jet, be disassembled and shipped from a military airfield on Hainan Island rather than repaired and flown out.
In a further sign of bruised US-China relations over the collision, China said on Tuesday it had barred a US military ship from visiting Hong Kong this week.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that a team of experts from the US Navy's Pacific Command would go to China this week to discuss details of how the EP-3E would be removed.
After their visit to Beijing and Hainan, Quigley said, the United States would begin seeking brokers from whom to hire one or two AN-124 cargo planes, the world's largest, to remove the fuselage, wings and tail section of the surveillance plane.
"That's where we are now," Quigley said, adding that there was unlikely to be any resolution on contracting and other details of the plan until next week at the earliest.
REMOVAL COULD TAKE WEEKS
He declined to predict when the EP-3E might be returned to the United States, perhaps to a Lockheed Martin Corp. facility in Georgia, but other defense officials predicted it could take several weeks to take the aircraft apart move it out.
The Pentagon had wanted to repair the EP-3E and fly it from Hainan but China refused.
"I think that at the end of the day, we're glad to get the airplane back in a condition that it can be repaired and used again. It's an $80 million airplane that is perfectly repairable and flyable," Quigley said.
"If this is an acceptable solution to both nations, we'll press on and be satisfied with that."
In Beijing on Tuesday, China said it had barred the mine-clearing command ship USS Inchon from visiting Hong Kong in an apparent fallout from the spy plane dispute. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman declined to say if the decision was linked to the standoff over the spy plane.
Quigley and State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the US request for the ship visit was made after the collision between the EP-3E and the fighter jet in international air space off China's southeastern coast.
Despite demands by China that the United States halt electronic intelligence-gathering flights near China, the US military resumed such flights this month.
Quigley said on Tuesday that Chinese fighter jets had not flown close to any American reconnaissance planes, although they were keeping a close watch on the US military in the region.
A Chinese military maritime surveillance plane flew low over the South China Sea near the US oceanographic survey vessel Bowditch this month and a small Chinese naval frigate also investigated the US ship, Quigley said -- WASHINGTON (Reuters)
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