US Embassy and Chinese Foreign Ministry officials are close to a final agreement on a joint statement to bring the US spy plane affair to a conclusion, diplomatic sources say. Resolution is being delayed as negotiators quibble over minor points, but these are not expected to block a deal between US Ambassador Joseph Prueher and senior ministry officials. However, details of the pending agreement were not available last night. 'They just need a final injection of political will. They are just arguing over minor semantic differences,' one source said. 'In negotiations when everyone gets tired, the Chinese can be very pedantic. But there's a deal there and has been for some time.' Progress reports came despite a stall in negotiations yesterday when China repeated demands for an apology from Washington. The April 1 mid-air collision brought down an F-8 Chinese fighter and forced a US EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance plane to make an emergency landing at a military base on Hainan Island. Its 24 crew members are being held in Haikou, although US Embassy personnel have gained improved access to them in recent days. Last night they met the crew for the fifth time. US military attache Brigadier-General Neal Sealock reported after the meeting that the crew remained in high spirits. The delay has caused American irritation to increase. 'Ambassador Prueher has been very patient, but there is a lot of frustration mounting up on the American side,' a diplomatic source said. 'They want to get this over with.' Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi hinted of progress in a press conference yesterday. 'The US use of the word 'sorry' is a step in the right direction,' he said, referring to comments made by US Secretary of State Colin Powell on Sunday. 'But we don't think this issue is fully solved. We still urge the US to take a positive attitude and take the stance of the Chinese side seriously.' Despite the public stance, diplomatic sources insisted yesterday the two sides were close to agreeing on a joint letter that would clear the way for the crew's immediate release. The two sides were at odds over the linguistic interpretation of the Chinese words for sorry, baoqian, and apology, daoqian. Asked about this, Mr Sun replied the US side knew what it was required to do. The joint letter has been drafted in both languages in ways that allow some leeway for interpretation of a common text. Sources said it stated the respective views of each side about the collision and would set forth means for avoiding future incidents of this kind. Significantly, it postpones a detailed description of what actually happened until later and merely specifies a mechanism for investigating the incident. The two sides are believed to have agreed that the Military Maritime Commission, set up two years ago to handle incidents involving the two countries' militaries, will be delegated to conduct the investigation. If the last obstacles to agreement are removed, then observers believe the crew would be sent home quickly, even though the damaged plane would remain on Hainan. The US Pacific Command based in Hawaii has been practising 'fetch and return' drills for several days. Asked about statements by US leaders and politicians that trade relations could be hurt and the US crew members are 'hostages', Mr Sun replied: 'We hope the US side will not further complicate this issue.' The Americans are said to be confident that, once an investigation is conducted, it will show that the Chinese version of events is inaccurate. 'I would be very surprised if the Chinese version stands up,' suggested one source. 'But the truth may never be aired in public, though, to save face.' Last night in Haikou, Chen Ci, director of the Foreign Affairs Office in Hainan - in a departure from his previous statements - did not demand the US apologise. 'The Chinese side has given the US crew full humanitarian treatment,' Mr Chen said. US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said yesterday he was ready to go to China to try to win the crew's release but the US Government declined his offer.