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Monday, 16 April, 2001, 19:33 GMT 20:33 UK
US plays down carrier deployment
USS Kitty Hawk
USS Kitty Hawk: Preparing for 'routine' exercises
American defence officials have denied that a US aircraft carrier is heading towards the South China Sea.

On Monday, the Washington Post reported that the USS Kitty Hawk, based in Japan, could be ready to launch fighter jets to protect US reconnaissance flights off China.

Meanwhile, a US delegation led by deputy under-secretary of defence, Pete Verga, has left for Beijing to begin talks with Chinese officials on the recent mid-air collision.

The eight-member American team will set out its views on the causes of the collision and demand the return of the damaged spy-plane, which was forced to make an emergency landing in China on 1 April.

'Aggressive pilot'

Denying the Washington Post report, an unnamed defence source told the Reuters news agency that the USS Kitty Hawk had bypassed the South China Sea on Monday, and was heading towards Guam for a scheduled air defence exercise.

An official added that the Pentagon saw little reason to use protective fighters because they believe the recent mid-air collision was caused by a particularly aggressive Chinese pilot.

Reconnaissance flights, suspended after the EP-3 spy plane incident, may resume by Thursday but Beijing has made it clear it wants an end to the controversial exercises.

Man reading newspaper
Chinese media insist the US is to blame
Chinese state-run media have continued to insist that the US is to blame for the mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter plane.

"The responsibility is completely on the US side," said a front-page article in the People's Daily on Sunday.

In the US, some congressmen have warned that the incident may damage US-China relations in other fields.

Senator Joseph Biden of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the Chinese would find it "harder going in the United States Congress".

Another senator, Robert Torricelli, said: "This is not some incident that will pass in the night; this will cause a fundamental change in our relations with China."

However, other US lawmakers urged a more cautious line, saying they didn't think the affair would affect decisions on trade with Beijing or selling arms to Taiwan.

Crew back home

The 24 crew from the spy plane have now returned home, after being held for 11 days on Hainan island.

Father greeted by son
The crew were welcomed by their families
From the outset, China 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 surveillance 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.


Key stories:

Analysis

Spy plane row

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TALKING POINT
See also:

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