Envoys describe tarmac drama of crew 'completing check-list' as troops barked orders outside

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2001, 12:00am

The US air crew held off Chinese soldiers for 15 minutes after their plane was forced to land on Hainan Island, apparently gaining extra time to destroy data and equipment, senior US diplomats said yesterday.

The soldiers, who had surrounded the EP-3E Aries II spy plane yelling orders to the 24 crew, took over the aircraft without a fight, they said.

The diplomats gave journalists the most detailed account to emerge from the emergency landing of the plane after a mid-air collision on April 1. Their account contradicts Chinese claims that a Chinese officer had wrestled an American crew member to the ground before the plane was boarded.

'The crew were on the plane on the ground for 15 minutes carrying out their standing instructions, while heavily armed members of the People's Liberation Army surrounded the plane and ordered them off, motioning, yelling and with loudspeakers,' one diplomat said. 'It was a chaotic scene.' Asked if the 24 had time to destroy hi-tech equipment and sensitive information, he said they 'completed all of their check-list'. He declined to elaborate.

'The Chinese tried to get them to stop and could have fired but did not. It was a very disabled aircraft and they had nowhere to go. They had just had a significant emotional experience,' he said.

After 15 minutes, the crew left the plane without a fight. 'I heard no report of any wrestling,' the diplomat said.

Last weekend Chinese sources said a Chinese officer had wrestled with a US crew member guarding the plane. The officer threw the American to the ground, enabling soldiers to enter the plane, Chinese media said.

The diplomat said Chinese officials had questioned the crew extensively, including at night. 'They were not mistreated or forcefully investigated,' he said.

The diplomats described the collision as an accident caused probably by the poor skills of Wang Wei, the pilot of one of the F-8 fighter jets tailing the spy plane. They said Wang was flying aggressively close to the spy plane and was unable to complete a manoeuvre, after which he tried to slow down, hitting an engine of the EP-3 and its nose. His plane broke into two pieces. Wang's body has not been found. 'It was not a deliberate act to ram the EP-3. It was a rendezvous accomplished badly,' one of the diplomats said.

The EP-3 lost 2,440 metres, rolled 130 degrees before the pilot recovered control and decided to fly to the nearest airfield, which was about 80km away. 'No one can fault the judgment of the pilot,' the diplomat said.

The crew made up to 25 distress calls, with no response. 'The crew did all they could to alert the airfield,' the diplomat said. Chinese officials have said they did not hear any call and accuse the US pilot of illegally entering their airspace.