BEIJING – The wife of a missing Chinese pilot had conciliatory words for the freed crew of a U.S. spy plane that collided with her husband's jet fighter, state media reported Friday.
Even as Beijing maintained that Washington was to blame for the April 1 collision that threatened to damage U.S.-China relations, the wife, Ruan Guoqin, said she sympathized with the United States' desire to get its fliers home.
"I can understand the feelings of the family members of the U.S. plane's crew. I wish the crew a safe journey," Ruan was quoted as saying by the Liberation Daily, China's military newspaper.
The 24 crew members, who made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island, were released Thursday and returned to a joyous welcome in the United States.
Ruan's tone contrasted with a letter she wrote to President Bush last week accusing him of being "cowardly" for not apologizing for the incident.
It was unclear whether China publicized Ruan's comments in an attempt to sound a more humanitarian note in its contentious dealings with the United States.
Most government proclamations Friday were defiant, with China saying it will use a meeting next week to press demands for an end to U.S. surveillance flights near its coast. Washington has ruled that out.
"The U.S. reconnaissance plane had intruded into China's airspace and rammed a Chinese fighter," the official China Daily newspaper quoted Premier Zhu Rongji as saying. "The U.S. side must take the entire responsibility for the plane collision incident."
In a letter of regret from Bush that won the release of the crew, Washington agreed to a meeting April 18 to discuss the incident. The location has not been announced.
At the meeting, the two sides are likely to dispute each other's version of who was responsible for the collision, and to discuss terms of the return of the EP-3E spy plane to the United States.
State media said Friday that China has the right to hold onto the plane to conduct a "thorough investigation."
With the crew back on U.S. soil, Bush set aside diplomatic niceties and warned that "I will ask our United States representative to ask the tough questions about China's recent practice of challenging United States aircraft operating legally in international airspace."
Reconnaissance flights, he said in Washington, "are a part of a comprehensive national security strategy that helps maintain peace and stability in our world."
The Navy fliers have given a starkly different account of the collision that caused a Chinese fighter to plunge into the sea, leaving pilot Wang Wei missing. They said the U.S. plane was on autopilot when it was struck by the Chinese fighter.
There was no hint of the differing accounts in Chinese media on Friday.
"The United States apologized. This is normal. How could they not apologize for violating our airspace without permission and ramming our plane?" Wang Ming, the father of the missing pilot, was quoted as saying by the leading Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily.
The newspaper reported on a visit to the pilot's parents by the relatives of Xu Xinghu, a reporter killed in 1999 when NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The United States has called that attack an accident, but many Chinese remain convinced it was intentional.
"This sort of shock, for both our families, is a tragedy that is impossible to put into words," Xu's sister was quoted as saying.