President George W. Bush on Tuesday told Beijing to "do the right thing" and return the 24 crew members of a U.S. spy plane held by China or risk damaging relations.
The United States ruled out an apology for the incident despite China's demands for one, and for the first time referred to the crew as having been detained.
"This accident has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries," said Bush, in a sign he was losing patience.
He appeared before reporters to reassure Americans the 21 men and three women of the EP-3 surveillance plane that landed on China's Hainan Island on Sunday were in good health, uninjured and had not been mistreated.
He spoke after the U.S. defense attache in China, Neal Sealock, met with the crew, which had been held incommunicado.
"Our approach has been to keep this accident from becoming an international incident. We have allowed the Chinese government time to do the right thing. But now it is time for our servicemen and women to return home and it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane," Bush said.
NO WORD ON POSSIBLE RELEASE
U.S. officials had no indication when the Chinese might free the crew to go free and release the EP-3 surveillance plane for repairs so it can be flown off Hainan Island.
It landed there after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter that had been shadowing it on a regular mission across the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot is still missing.
Beijing demanded Washington accept responsibility for the incident - a demand Secretary of State Colin Powell rejected.
"I have heard some suggestions of an apology. But we have nothing to apologize for. We had an emergency," Powell told reporters on a flight to Washington from Key West, Florida.
Asked if the crew were hostages, Powell said: "I judge them to be detained and to some extent I can call them incommunicado because they're not free to call out or move about freely."
At the State Department, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage summoned China's ambassador to the United States, Yang Jiechi, to add to pressure on the Chinese.
As for why the Chinese were refusing to give up the crew, a senior U.S. official said: "We've not gotten a clear answer, and the Chinese have said they want time to 'investigate.'"The official added: "The longer this goes on, the more it has the potential to become an incident, rather than, as of right now, fallout from an accident."
Bush and his aides were taking a low-key approach to their first foreign policy crisis, keeping the rhetoric from overheating. Bush did not call Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
"We believe there is a diplomatic solution to this incident and not a military one," said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman.
But officials were quietly discussing ways to respond should the standoff drag on, such as canceling Bush's planned trip to China in October, or pulling out some diplomats, officials said.
Some officials attributed the delay in the release of the crew to complex "internal issues" within the Communist giant, suggesting a rift between the Chinese military and foreign ministry over how to proceed.
U.S. officials described a harrowing scene after the collision and praised the pilot for landing the damaged plane, which lost one propeller, suffered damage in another and the nosecone, and dropped 8,000 feet after the collision.
"The pilot, in order to save 24 lives including his own, under circumstances ... that must have been hair-raising, safely got that plane on the ground," Powell told reporters.
The Pentagon said it had no proof the Chinese had boarded the plane and carried off its top-secret snooping hardware.
But one U.S. official said satellite images showed "the Chinese working on the airplane, taking a wrench to it, fooling around with it, examining it, tinkering with it."
Under normal procedure the crew would have taken "emergency destruction procedures" to render the equipment useless, but it was unclear if this was done.
Bush said Brig. Gen. Sealock told him the crew members "are in good health, they suffered no injuries and they have not been mistreated. I know this is a relief to their loved ones, and to all Americans."
FAITH IN AMERICA
"Our crew members expressed their faith in America, and we have faith in them. They send their love to their families. They said they are looking forward to coming home, and we are looking forward to bringing them home," he said.
Officials said the crew members were being held in a hostel, two to a room, on the Hainan Island air base except for the pilot, who was being held solo.
The incident threatened to further strain relations between Beijing and the new Bush administration, which has promised a tougher approach to the Communist giant than previous U.S. President Bill Clinton. Ties have already been strained over the possible U.S. sale of advanced U.S. weaponry to Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.