Speaking to business leaders in Virginia, Bush said he wanted to update them on "the situation in China." The crew has been in Chinese hands at an air base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, since their EP-3 surveillance plane was involved in a midair collision with a Chinese jet Sunday.
Bush said Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, had visited with the Americans for one hour Friday and reported "that they are doing just fine."
"They are housed in officers' quarters, and they are being treated well," Bush said. "We're proud of these young men and women, who are upholding the high standards of our armed forces. We know this is a difficult time for their families, and I thank them for their patriotism and their patience."
The administration was "working hard to bring them home through intensive discussions with the Chinese government, and we think we're making progress," Bush said.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, indicated Friday a mechanism for a resolution of the confrontation could be in the works. Officials of the two governments, he said, were drafting a memorandum of understanding for approval by Bush and President Jiang Zemin.
Sealock, who first visited the 24 Americans Tuesday in more tense and rigid circumstances and controls, had briefed Bush by phone Friday morning immediately after his meeting, the second since Sunday. He told the president: "I think you'd feel proud. They look good."
Earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was "encouraged at this point" about negotiations over the return the 24 crew members and the damaged spy plane. He would not elaborate on the talks, but said officials from both sides "are exchanging ideas and papers."
Powell said most of the crew were staying two to a room, with the commander housed by himself and the three female crew members sharing one room. The Chinese have brought the crew catered meals. Powell said there was "no indication of physical or verbal mistreatment."
U.S. diplomats plan on seeing the crew a third time today, but there is still no agreement on their release.
The E-3, which carries ultra-sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, was flying off the Chinese coast, eavesdropping on China's communications, when it collided with an F-8 fighter sent to intercept it. Heavily damaged, the U.S. plane landed at a Chinese military base on Hainan. It is not known how much sensitive information and equipment the EP-3s crew was able to destroy before Chinese troops boarded the aircraft after its touch down.
China blames the United States for the collision and demands an apology. Washington says the F-8 hit the U.S. aircraft, which was flying over international waters.
Beijing's position was repeated Friday by its Foreign Ministry and by the official Xinhua news agency.
"China's position is clear," a ministry spokeswoman said. "The United States must admit full responsibility and apologize to the Chinese people, and it must take sincere and effective measures to prevent a similar incident from happening again."
Xinhua, in its commentary, said: "It is clear that the U.S. plane broke flight rules and made dangerous movements, causing the crash of the Chinese jet and the missing of the Chinese pilot, and violated international and Chinese laws.
"The acts of the U.S. plane violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and are against the consensus reached between China and the United States in May last year on avoiding military risks in sea areas."
Throughout the dispute, China has indicated the fate of the U.S. crew and the progress, if any, of negotiations hinged on a U.S. apology, which Washington refuses to give.
Bush, however, opened the door for progress and more access to the crew by publicly expressing Thursday "regret."
"I regret that a Chinese pilot is missing. … Our prayers go out to the pilot, his family. ... Our prayers are also with our own servicemen and women, and they need to come home," Bush said.
During a visit to Chile late Thursday, Chinese President Jiang said Beijing and Washington must take care in handling the dispute. He said the crew members were safe and that the damaged U.S. plane was still on Hainan Island. But he insisted both sides must work together to seek a resolution to the impasse.
"I have visited many countries, and I see that when people have an accident, the two groups involved ... always say, 'Excuse me,'" he said. However, he did not offer an apology to the U.S.
Jiang began his tour of Latin American capitals Thursday. In Washington, Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi was at the U.S. State Department for the fourth time in as many days, meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has emerged as one of the key players in the administration's handling of the crisis.
The diplomatic standoff comes amid increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing. Relations chilled markedly last month, when Bush refused to give visiting Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen assurances that the United States would not sell high-tech warships to Taiwan in the annual April arms deal between Washington and Taipei. The warships are equipped with the Navy's most advanced anti-missile radar system, called Aegis, and could be used to shoot down Chinese ballistic missiles.
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