Bush pleased by release of U.S. crew from China.
(EDS: ADDING CREW MEMBERS' ARRIVAL IN GUAM)
U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday applauded China's release of 24 Americans detained on Hainan Island since the April 1 collision between their reconnaissance plane and a Chinese jet fighter.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters that the president was ''very pleased for the families, he's very pleased for the crew. He's pleased that this accident did not turn into a crisis.''
A chartered Continental Airlines Boeing 737 carrying the 24 crew -- 21 men and three women -- took off from Meilan international airport in northern Hainan at around 7:30 a.m. Thursday local time, ending the 11-day standoff with Beijing since the U.S. Navy's EP-3 plane made an emergency landing on the island on April 1.
In Greenville, North Carolina, Bush told a cheering crowd, ''These have been difficult days for all the families, and these days are a reminder of the sacrifice all our men and women in uniform and their families make every single day for freedom.''
''We can't wait for them (the crew) to get home,'' Bush said.
The chartered flight carrying the 24 crew members landed on Guam Thursday afternoon for a brief stopover, U.S. officials said.
A Pentagon official told a news briefing late Wednesday night that the crew will be transferred to a C-17 U.S. Air Force jet for an eight-hour flight to Honolulu, Hawaii, after spending about four hours in Guam.
In Honolulu, the crew will undergo three days of debriefings as well as medical and psychological checks, the spokesman said.
After the debriefing, the crew will be flown to their home base in the state of Washington.
The Chinese government said Wednesday that it decided to release the crew of the Navy's EP-3 plane on ''humanitarian'' grounds.
The move came after Washington said it was ''very sorry'' for the aircraft's entry into Chinese airspace without permission from the Chinese government and ''very sorry'' for the death of the Chinese pilot whose fighter went down after colliding with the U.S. plane over the South China Sea.
The U.S. government spelled out the position in a letter U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher delivered to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan on Wednesday.
The U.S. ambassador's letter said, ''We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance.''
China apparently took this wording as Washington's apology for the incident, leading to its decision to release the American air crew.
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell said Wednesday the U.S. ambassador's use of ''very sorry'' in the letter has nothing to do with the U.S.'s taking the blame for the incident.
''To apologize would have suggested that we had done something wrong and were accepting responsibility for having done something wrong, and we did not do anything wrong, and therefore it was not possible to apologize,'' Powell told reporters during a trip to Paris.
The U.S. expressed ''regret,'' ''sorrow'' and ''very sorry'' over the loss of the young Chinese pilot's life, Powell said.
He said the U.S. Navy plane entered China's airspace without permission because the plane had been severely damaged.
A pilot of the U.S. plane ''had to get it on the ground. He had 23 lives plus his own to save, and niceties and formalities were not available to him at that moment,'' Powell said.
According to Prueher's letter, the two countries plan to hold talks beginning April 18 to discuss the incident.
The agenda of the meeting will include an investigation into the cause of the incident, possible recommendations to prevent a similar accident and Washington's request for prompt return of the EP-3 aircraft, Prueher's letter said.
''We acknowledge your government's intention to raise U.S. reconnaissance missions near China in the meeting,'' the letter said, indicating Washington is ready to listen to China's complaints about U.S. reconnaissance flights near China.