"This has been a difficult situation for both our countries," Bush said, adding, "I know the American people will join me in expressing sorrow for the loss of life of the Chinese pilot."
An earlier statement from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The U.S. ambassador [to Beijing] has received verbal assurances that the air crew will be allowed to leave shortly." Final arrangements were being worked out, the statement said.
A chartered commercial jet is expected to leave from Guam shortly for Hainan Island in the South China Sea where the crew members have been detained since the U.S. Navy surveillance plane made an emergency landing there following a collision with a Chinese jet fighter April 1.
Earlier, a Chinese spokesman on Hainan said, "As the U.S. side has already said 'very sorry' to the Chinese people, the Chinese government, out of humanitarian considerations, decided to allow the 24 people on the U.S. spy plane to leave China after completing the necessary procedures."
Ambassador Joseph Prueher met with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan in Beijing Wednesday and handed him a letter with the proposed wording from the administration. It was the fifth version of what the United States was prepared to say in response to Chinese insistence on an apology for the mishap.
"Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft," the letter said. "Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss."
The United States also said it was "very sorry" for the "entering of China's airspace and the landing," which "did not have verbal clearance."
Chinese television quoted Tang as saying the crew would be free to go after completing what the TV announcer said were all the "formalities."
"The U.S. side must take full responsibility for the incident, provide convincing explanations to the Chinese people, stop its reconnaissance activities above the Chinese coast and take measures to stop the recurrence of such incidents," Tang told Prueher, according to the official Xinhua news agency Wednesday.
Xinhua said Tang "also pointed out that this is not the conclusion of the case involving the U.S. military plane ramming into a Chinese aircraft, causing the missing of the Chinese pilot, entering the Chinese airspace and landing at a Chinese airfield without permission. The two sides will continue with the negotiations on the matter and other related issues."
"The Chinese side attaches importance to China-U.S. relations," Xinhua said. "To develop friendly relations and cooperation between China and the United States serves the interests of both countries and the world at large."
What wasn't in the U.S. letter was any reference to U.S. responsibility for the accident itself. This issue will be taken up at a meeting April 18 of a U.S.-Chinese commission that will investigate the accident further.
(Katherine Arms in Hong Kong and Mark Kukis at the White House contributed to this report.)
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