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U.S. Resolve Stiffens as Plane Dispute Enters Second Week

By Tom Bowman, Jay Hancock and Frank Langfitt

New information from U.S. crew members about the collision of a Chinese jet fighter and a Navy spy plane shows the Americans were not at fault, U.S. officials said Monday, stiffening Washington’s resolve in rebuffing Beijing’s demands for an apology.

Interviews with the detained 24 crew members held on Hainan Island reveal that Chinese pilot Wang Wei passed three times below the lumbering EP-3E reconnaissance craft -- once within two or three feet -- before striking the U.S. plane’s left wing with the fighter’s tail and plunging into the sea, said Pentagon officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“That time he misjudged his flight path,” one official said.

The force of the collision pushed the fighter in front of the EP-3, shearing off the U.S. plane’s nose. The Chinese jet “broke in two pieces,” and the resulting damage to the EP-3’s propellers and nose cone caused it to drop 5,000 feet in an “uncontrolled” loss of altitude, the official said.

The crew members’ accounts belie Beijing’s contention that the American plane caused the accident by veering suddenly into the Chinese fighter, U.S. officials said. Beijing has said Wang’s flight partner, in a second fighter jet, saw a shift in the U.S. plane’s course and the subsequent crash.

The Americans “were flying a straight and level course,” said one Pentagon official. “The swerving took place after he was hit,” as the U.S. plane banked left and downward when its pilot lost control.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said Monday: “We stand by our eyewitness account of the other Chinese pilot.”

China repeated its demand for an apology on Monday, saying it still is not satisfied with Washington’s comments.

“Regrettably, the United States’ statements are still unacceptable to the Chinese people. We are highly unsatisfied,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bang Zao said at a news conference.

The United States has said for a week that it will not apologize for the April 1 collision. Analysts fear the collision and its aftermath could lead to a rupture in U.S.-China relations. But in recent days U.S. officials had hinted that an investigation of the incident might cause them to soften their stance. Not anymore.

“The United States has nothing to apologize for,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday, reaffirming the administration position. “The United States has taken a careful look at this matter.”

In an interview, Fleischer said, “There is other information that I’m not at liberty to discuss” that has been factored into the U.S. refusal.

He declined to elaborate. But Pentagon officials said the new information came from U.S. crew members who were debriefed in recent days by U.S. Embassy officials outside the presence of Chinese officials.

The somewhat tougher administration stance came as intensive talks to resolve the impasse continued in Beijing and President Bush repeated warnings made over the weekend by his aides that U.S.-China relations are at risk.

“Diplomacy takes time,” Bush said before a Cabinet meeting. “But there is a point -- the longer it goes -- there is a point at which our relations with China could become damaged.”