News

China holds Whidbey crew

"Whidbey Island Naval Air Station personnel this week are focusing on support of Oak Harbor families of military personnel held by the Chinese government following a Whidbey-based surveillance plane's mid-air collision with a Chinese intercept jet.Meanwhile late Tuesday, U.S. leaders pursued diplomatic avenues to prompt the release of the 24-member EP-3E aircrew who survived a crash-landing after the collision.The crewmembers and their aircraft are being detained on the Chinese island of Hainan, following a mid-air collision with a Chinese intercept jet that forced an emergency landing Sunday morning in China, (8:15 p.m. PDT Saturday), Adm. Dennis C. Blair, commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Command, said at a news conference Sunday in Hawaii.President Bush in a public address on Tuesday issued a simple and direct message to the government of China: Return our people and property.We've allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing, President Bush said during the a news conference broadcast Tuesday on CNN.The names of the 24 crewmembers were released Monday. Of the 14 crewmembers stationed at Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One, or VQ-1, seven of them have families in the Oak Harbor area, said Kimberly Martin, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station public affairs officer.U.S. diplomats made their first contact Tuesday with the crew following the crew's safe landing at an airfield in Lingshui, Navy officials said.State Department Defense Attache to China, Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock met with the crew on Tuesday morning, Bush said. The crewmembers were reported to be in good health and were not mistreated by the Chinese.In Oak Harbor, at least one spouse heard the news of the diplomatic visit and report on the crew's condition and was gratified at the news, said Lt. Jon Conroe, a Navy chaplain at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.The state department is continuing to negotiate with Chinese officials for the crew's return, Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly, U.S. Navy Pacific Command spokesman, said Tuesday afternoon.U.S. officials held a public briefing Sunday to explain how the mid-air collision happened.The point where the collision occurred is ... about 70 nautical miles off of the island of Hainan, in international airspace, Blair said.Chinese fighters intercepted the aircraft, and one of them bumped into the wing of the EP-3 aircraft, he said.The crew radioed a mayday, and proceeded to land at the closest airfield, in order to be safe for his crew and his airplane, Blair said.Based on the training the aircrew received, during the 20 minutes elapsed from the bumping of the two planes to when the EP-3 landed on the ground, the crew would have tried to carry out their responsibility to destroy sensitive materials onboard the aircraft, said Capt. William Marriott, commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10. Marriott addressed a news conference Tuesday at the media center set up at the American Red Cross building near the base's main gate on Ault Field Road. About 30 regional and national media representatives attended the conference.All international aircraft in such circumstances have sovereign immunity, Blair said, meaning the plane cannot be boarded or confiscated.International law is kind of hard to enforce, said Kelly. In response to what Kelly called speculation regarding reports that the Chinese have boarded the aircraft, Kelly said the U.S. would be able to protest the action.Photographs of the aircraft shown on MSNBC's Web site on Tuesday afternoon showed the EP-3E with parts missing, notably the nose cone. You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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