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Last parts of Navy spy plane leave with China’s ‘cooperation’

SHARE Last parts of Navy spy plane leave with China’s ‘cooperation’

MANILA, Philippines — The last disassembled parts of a U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet, sparking a crisis in U.S.-China relations, were flown off southern China's Hainan island Tuesday, the Navy said.

The fuselage of the EP-3E and equipment used to dismantle the plane were packed onto an AN-124 cargo aircraft that arrived in the Philippine capital of Manila on Tuesday evening to refuel before flying to Honolulu, Hawaii.

"Things went extremely smoothly," said Navy Cmdr. John Fleming of the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. "It was a very well-orchestrated operation."

He said the work crew was able to finish well before its July 11 target date, and added that Chinese officials had been helpful.

"By every measure, the cooperation from the host nation was outstanding," Fleming said.

The massive Russian-designed transport aircraft took off from Hainan at 4:45 Tuesday afternoon (0845 GMT), the Navy said.

It arrived in the Philippines about 2 1/2 hours later for what was scheduled to be about a four-hour refueling stop, according to officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The aircraft was parked in a dark area near the passenger terminal with little security and only its wingtip and cockpit lights on.

Customs and flight records filed by Polet Cargo listed 40 tons of "aircraft parts." Two Americans were joining the flight in Manila as petty officers.

The EP-3E, packed with sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment, made an emergency landing April 1 on Hainan after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea.

The collision and China's 11-day detention of the U.S. crew caused the worst tensions between Beijing and Washington since the bombing of China's embassy in Yugoslavia by U.S. planes in 1999.

China blamed the crew of the U.S. spy plane for the collision and accused the United States of violating its sovereignty by making the unauthorized emergency landing on Hainan. Chinese President Jiang Zemin demanded an apology and an end to U.S. surveillance missions off China's coast.

Washington blamed the Chinese pilot, saying he flew recklessly and collided with the EP-3E. The Chinese pilot parachuted out of his jet and is presumed dead after a lengthy search failed to find him.

A 12-member team from Lockheed Martin, the plane's manufacturer, that was sent to dismantle the EP-3E was expected to leave Hainan on Wednesday, said Navy Chief Journalist Doug Holl of the Pacific Command.

After arriving in Hawaii, the EP-3E was to be transported to a Lockheed Martin facility in Marietta, Ga., where it would be reassembled in preparation for returning to service.

Other parts of the aircraft have already been taken to Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, Holl said.

The United States had wanted to repair the plane and fly it out of Hainan under its own power, but China refused to allow that.

The two sides eventually compromised, agreeing that the EP-3E would be transported out, but disassembled in such a way that it could be put back together again.

The collision inflamed anti-U.S. feelings in China, still strong two years after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Beijing never accepted Washington's explanation that the bombing was a mistake caused by faulty targeting.

In Washington, politicians angered by Beijing's detention of the U.S. plane's crew canceled visits to China and warned of commercial retaliation if the crew wasn't returned. The crew was released after President Bush approved a letter saying the United States was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot and for the U.S. plane's unauthorized landing on Hainan.

Both sides have said they now want to put the incident behind them.

"China-U.S. relations, though having encountered difficulties recently, now have momentum for improvement," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said Tuesday.

China has asked for compensation for its plane and pilot. Washington says it will only pay expenses incurred in the EP-3E recovery operation.

Vice President Cheney said Monday that the plane incident showed the sides needed to keep working to build a relationship "that's founded on trust."

"We're not enemies at this point, probably not friends either," Cheney said in a radio interview.