WASHINGTON – Two U.S. diplomats meeting for the third time with the 24 crew members of the downed Navy surveillance plane being detained in China said the Americans are in good spirits and allowed to receive e-mails from home.
Footage broadcast over the Internet showed the diplomats leaving their hotel on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea, after waiting nearly all day Saturday to see the crew. The crew have been detained by the Chinese since March 31, when their plane collided with an F-8 fighter in an incident that has the U.S. and China bristling and volleying tough words at each other.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials worked with their Chinese counterparts Saturday to resolve the status of the detained Americans, while the Bush administration considered Beijing's renewed demand for an apology.
A White House spokeswoman said Saturday that President Bush is "focused on continued diplomatic efforts" to gain the crew's release. Though the crew has been held by the Chinese for a week, U.S. diplomats have been permitted to see them only twice before Saturday.
State Department officials said the U.S. ambassador to China, retired Adm. Joseph Prueher, and representatives from the Chinese foreign ministry met twice overnight in China.
Also Saturday, Chinese vice premier Qian Qichen sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell in which he said U.S. statements of regret about the incident but falling short of an apology "so far are still unacceptable" to Beijing.
"Chinese people are extremely dissatisfied with this," he wrote. The United States must "apologize to the Chinese people," Qichen said. "This is the key issue to solving the problem."
The White House "will have no comment on any ongoing diplomatic discussions," the White House spokeswoman said. Bush, spending the weekend at Camp David, was kept apprised of developments by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
The White House also said the president received the letter from the wife of the missing Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, written to the president on Friday.
The letter from Ruan Guoqin also blamed the United States for the collision, according to the Xinhua news agency, which carried a text of the note.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, hoped a letter under review by the president and Chinese President Jiang Zemin could lead to a resolution of the spy plane dispute.
The letter, currently in draft form, would express regrets for the collision last Sunday between the plane and a Chinese jet fighter and arrange for the two sides to exchange their views of the incident. It also would clear the way for release of the 24 crew members of the Navy EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance plane.
Warner said there would be no U.S. apology in the letter. "I believe the ambassador, and others, expressed regret for loss of life. That will be embraced in the letter," he said.
A senior administration official said the letter would bear the signature of the U.S. ambassador not Bush. But the president directed that it be drafted and will approve the final language, the official said.
The likeliest arrangement for a resolution is to have the two sides make their cases about the collision of the U.S. plane and a Chinese fighter jet at a special meeting of a joint maritime commission set up three years ago to enhance safety on the seas, a senior U.S. official said.
The crew met Friday with Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, on the Chinese island Hainan, where their plane made an emergency landing Sunday. It was their second meeting.
The formula for a possible way out of the impasse was disclosed to The Associated Press on Friday by senior U.S. officials. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, later revealed the draft letter's contents.
After receiving a Pentagon briefing, Warner said the letter's language would provide a "common understanding" by the two presidents of the episode.
The administration showed rising optimism that it would be able to unravel its first major diplomatic tangle. The president said negotiations with China had achieved progress, and he and Powell said the crew members were being treated well by the Chinese.
"We're working hard to bring them home through intensive discussions with the Chinese government, and we think we're making progress," Bush said Friday.
A photograph of 11 of the crew members, taken during their first meeting with U.S. diplomats Tuesday, was distributed to family members, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Powell said "all of the crew members were in fine shape ... their morale is good."