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The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reports
"China does now appear keen to bring this acrimonious dispute to an end"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 29 May, 2001, 02:57 GMT 03:57 UK
Spy plane to return home

The Antonov is the only plane big enough to contain the spy plane
American officials say they have agreed with China on how to repatriate the US spy plane which has been stranded on Hainan Island since a collision with a Chinese jet fighter almost two months ago.

Full details and the timing are yet to be decided, but the officials suggested the EP-3 spy plane will be partly dismantled and flown out on a giant Antonov transport aircraft.

Antonov 124 cargo plane
The AN 124 is the largest cargo plane in the world
"The two sides have agreed in principle that an AN-124 aircraft can be used to return the EP-3 aircraft from Lingshui airfield," said a US official, who asked not to be identified.

In China, the official Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao as confirming a deal had been reached to "take home the EP-3 in parts".

The AN-124, the world's largest cargo plane, which first flew under the Soviet flag in 1982, is made both in the Ukraine and Russia and used commercially.

National humiliation

China detained the 24 members of the US crew for 11 tense days after the collision, which killed the pilot of the Chinese fighter.

US technicians who inspected the plane earlier this month said it could be made air worthy, and Washington officials pushed Beijing to let the aircraft be repaired and they flown out of China.

Beijing had said that allowing the plane to be repaired and flown out would have been a national humiliation.

Appeasing the public

Correspondents say that making the United States take the plane apart for a long and expensive journey home could help China's leaders appease a nationalistic public outraged by the incident.

The $80m plane will in effect be turned into scrap, it is thought.

China freed the US crew only after Washington said it was "very sorry" the Chinese pilot died and that the plane landed without authorisation.

However, the long delay in returning the plane also angered US politicians, with the stand-off threatening to spill over into areas of trade and Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics.

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See also:

23 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
US backs Dalai Lama
07 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
US resumes spy plane flights
04 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
US spy plane 'could fly home'
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