"It is time for our servicemen and women to return home. It is time for the Chinese government to return our plane," Mr. Bush said late Tuesday afternoon at the White House.
Bush's statement, and a later comment from a senior U.S. official rebuffing China's President Jiang Zemin's demand for a U.S. apology, are the latest developments since the EP-3E Aries II electronic eavesdropping plane apparently made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island Sunday after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea.
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As CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports, the crew is lucky to be alive. According to the crew's account of the collision, the Navy plane lost one propeller, had another damaged, lost part of its nose cone and dropped several thousand feet before the pilot could regain control. The plane landed on the island several minutes later, and it has stayed there since.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was glad American diplomats and Army Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, the U.S. Embassy defense attaché in Beijing, met with the plane's crew early Tuesday.
But he and Mr. Bush felt the Chinese should be moving faster.
"I'm encouraged by the fact that the meeting is taking place. It shouldn't have taken so long for it to happen, but now that it has happened, I hope this starts us on a road to a full and complete resolution of this matter," Powell said.
Mr. Bush said he wanted to give China time to respond to the weekend episode to help prevent the stalemate from escalating into a full-fledged crisis. But, the president said in a statement, such a grace period was quickly running out.
"This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries," the president said. "To keep that from happening, our servicemen and women need to come home."
Despite the president's appeal, there were few indications China was ready yet to give back either the crew or the equipment-laden aircraft. China's President Jiang Zemin has demanded the U.S. accept full responsibility for the collision and halt all surveillance flights near China's coast.
Several U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it appeared the Chinese government would insist on an official U.S. government apology before allowing the crew to leave China. Yet an apology is unlikely.
"We didn't do anything wrong. This was international airspace, and it was an accident," said a senior U.S. official in response. The official said the United States would regret the loss of the Chinese pilot, if indeed the pilot was killed, "but in terms of an apology, no."
Aides said the president wanted to be careful not to inflame the situation further by issuing hard demands or a timetable for the release of the crew. His statement was intended to be firm but patient, aides said.
Mr. Bush said the 21 men and three women aboard the plane are in "good health" and haven't been mistreated since they landed. He said he had talked to Sealock.
"The general tells me they are in good health, they suffered no injuries and they have not been mistreated. I know this is a relief to their loved ones," Mr. Bush said.
"The crew members expressed their faith in America, and we have faith in them," the president said. "They're looking forward to coming home and we are looking forward to bringing them home."
The Chinese and American diplomats have been sparring over the incident almost since it occurred. Prior to Mr. Bush's press conference, Powell had urged the Chinese to quickly release the crew and return the plane.
"If we resolve this rather quickly, then hopefully it will not affect the overall relationship between the United States and the People's Republiof China," Powell said. "I hope that is the beginning of an end to this incident."
He also said the incident would have no bearing on President Bush's decision, expected later this month, on the composition of an annual arms package for Taiwan.
Meanwhile, China had picked apart the plane. Pentagon officials tell CBS News the Chinese have carted away the state-of-the-art equipment used to eavesdrop on Chinese military communications despite Mr. Bush's warning not to tamper with it.
"If they are not recognizing our sovereign immunity and people are poring over the aircraft, obviously the longer they have it . . . They'll have access to that equipment, so clearly time is a factor," said Navy Capt. William Marriott, who has commanded such craft.
The crew had orders to destroy the sensitive equipment but only had 20 minutes between the time it collided with the Chinese jet and the time it landed.
"I am sure they did everything within their capabilities to carry out their responsibilities with respect to destroying any sensitive equipment that they were required to destroy but there is limited time," Marriott said.
U.S. and Chinese diplomats disagree over the exact circumstances of the incident. China says the U.S. plane veered into one of two F-8 fighters on an interception mission 60 miles south of Hainan in international air space.
The U.S. plane
made an emergency landing
"We cannot understand why the United States often sent its planes to make surveillance flights in areas so close to China," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Jiang as saying.
"And this time, in violation of international law and practice, the U.S. plane bumped into our plane, invaded the Chinese territorial airspace and landed at our airport," he said in demanding an apology for the incident.
And U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher disputed the Chinese account of the incident, but said from Beijing in an interview with the CBS News Early Show that the United States wants to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels. Three U.S. destroyers that had been sent to the region have been turned away, with Pentagon officials noting the situation lacks a military solution.
Asked whether he would have a problem apologizing for the incident, Prueher replied, "As a matter of fact, I do have a problem with it and I think our government would have a problem with it as well."
He added, "I've been a Navy pilot for 35 years, and I think the assertions they (Chinese officials) described for the collision are etremely unlikely, including where the fault lies."
But later Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley toned down the rhetoric, refusing to blame the Chinese for the collision, and saying the facts behind the mishap aren't fully known.
Meanwhile, the Chinese appear to be mocking the American claim that the plane is protected by international law from outside observance without its permission. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao told the reporters Tuesday with a smile: "If this plane is sovereign American territory, how did it land in China?"