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; damage to two of the four propellers; and a damaged wing flap.

One official said the plane tumbled 8,000 feet after the collision and had trouble getting its wing flaps down.

Bush said he wanted to give China time to resolve the matter and to prevent the stalemate from escalating into a full-fledged crisis. But, the president said, such a grace period was quickly running out.

He said he talked with Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy's defense attache in Beijing, who participated in a meeting Tuesday with the 21 men and three women of the plane's crew.

"The general tells me they are in good health, they suffered no injuries and they have not been mistreated. I know this is a relief to their loved ones," Bush said.

Chinese officials sat in on the crew meeting and attempted to restrict the American officials' inquiries to health matters, although some of the ground rules were ignored, officials said. At one point, Sealock and the Chinese debated a ground rule and the American, knowing the meeting was to last just 45 minutes, cracked to the Chinese officials, "Can I have my 60 seconds back?"

Officials said Bush's national security team was considering a range of options in the event China does not act quickly. The options, which the officials said have not reached Bush's desk, include canceling Bush's planned trip to Beijing -- announced just last month during a White House visit by China's deputy prime minister -- and withdrawing some diplomats from China.

In addition to calling for an apology, Jiang urged the United States to stop surveillance flights off the country's coasts. A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said he doubted that would happen.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman also dismissed U.S. claims that the plane was sovereign American territory and therefore Chinese officials had no right to board it.

The EP-3E is from Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One, whose home base is Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Wash. The crew consisted of 22 Navy personnel and one each from the Air Force and Marine Corps.

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On the Net:

Pacific Command: http://www.pacom.mil/

EP-3E Aries II squadron: http://www.naswi.navy.mil/vq-1/welcome.html

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APTV 04-04-01 1056EDT