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Sunday, 15 April, 2001, 02:32 GMT 03:32 UK
Spy plane crew welcomed home
Relatives with crew member
The relatives' relief was evident
The 24 crew of the American spy plane who were held in China have returned to a heroes' welcome at their home base in Washington state.

Thousands of people had gathered at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, north of Seattle.


Your actions made us all proud to be Americans

Rear Admiral Michael Holmes

Accompanied by roars from the crowd and a military band, the 21 men and three women stepped off the plane that had carried them from Hawaii to be greeted by their loved ones.

The wife of one serviceman ran out onto the tarmac, baby in hand, to embrace her husband to ecstatic cheers.

The servicemen and women were given some private time with their families before moving on to a ceremony in a hangar festooned with red, white and blue.

Father greeted by children
This was a day for the crew's families
They marched along a red carpet waving US flags to thunderous applause, before being feted with speeches by local dignitaries.

Northwest regional navy commander Rear Admiral Vinson Smith described them as "brave young Americans".

And Rear Admiral Michael Holmes said: "Your actions made us all proud to be Americans."

And he praised the pilot of the plane, Shane Osborn, who he said had saved the lives of the crew.

Lieutenant Osborn himself was deeply affected by the welcome.

"This welcome home is overwhelming for all of us, but we do appreciate it," he said.

"It confirms what we all believe, that the spirit is still strong in the United States of America."

Before the crew left Hawaii, where they had been debriefed, Lieutenant Osborn described the mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter that forced his aircraft to land on China's Hainan island.

Lieutenant Shane Osborn, pilot of the US Navy surveillance plane
Shane Osborn: "We were not to blame"
He said the US surveillance plane was flying in a straight line on autopilot at the time.

Lieutenant Osborn said the Chinese who detained the crew were polite and respectful, but added that he and his compatriots had undergone unpleasant interrogations.

He described the crash as an accident, but said the Chinese pilot had flown dangerously close to the US plane.

Tough exchanges expected

Beijing has continued to take a different view, hailing Wang Wei, the pilot of its F-8 jet, as a martyr as it acknowledged that there was no chance of finding him alive.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue rejected US assertions that Wang was responsible for the collision.

Wang Wei shown with his wife and son
Wang Wei: From family man to revolutionary hero
US and Chinese representatives are due to meet on Wednesday to discuss events leading up to the incident on 1 April.

Correspondents say the hardening of tones in both capitals sets the scene for some tough exchanges.

The US has also repeated its demand that China return the high-tech EP-3 surveillance plane.

The plane's crew members were only allowed to leave Hainan island after statements of regret from Washington.

From the outset, China has demanded that Washington accept blame for the collision and apologise, but President George W Bush has refused to do so.

Instead, the US said it was "very sorry" about the loss of the Chinese pilot and "very sorry" the plane did not obtain permission before landing on Chinese territory.

China found the formula adequate to allow the crew to be released on 11 April.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Emma Simpson in Whidbey Naval Base
"One by one the crew disembarked"
The BBC's Rob Watson
"After the official celebrations were over, the crew were whisked away"

Key stories:

Analysis

Spy plane row

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See also:

15 Apr 01 | Americas
13 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
13 Apr 01 | Americas
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