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In a blow to deteriorating relations with the United States, China detained two U.S. Air Force officers accused of spying and Wednesday ordered them expelled.

The two officers "sneaked into a number of restricted military zones in China's southeast coastal areas and illegally acquired military intelligence by photographing and videotaping," Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang was quoted by the official news agency as saying.Shen said the officers, who entered China on July 23, were caught "on the spot" on Saturday "by Chinese soldiers on duty." He gave no other details.

China's state security authorities said Wednesday that the two men had 24 hours to leave the country.

U.S.-China relations in recent months have been on a downward spiral because of China's arrest of a Chinese-American human rights activist, the U.S. decision to grant a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui and evidence of Chinese arms sales to rogue states.

In Washington, White House press secretary Mike McCurry confirmed that China notified the United States of the expulsions.

"They have been detained and will be released in the next 24 hours," McCurry told reporters.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher knew of the expulsions before meeting Tuesday with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, McCurry said. Christopher didn't mention the topic in the talks because U.S. diplomats in China were already in contact with Beijing officials, the spokesman said.

Both sides said progress was made in the talks aimed at soothing shaky U.S.-China relations.

McCurry didn't specifically deny the spying charges.

"As far as I know they were on an authorized travel," he said. "We're not aware of anything out of the routine about their travel in China." He said the men were traveling with valid visas and diplomatic passports.

McCurry said the United States has not had any direct contact with the men.