China said Thursday that the United States can take back its stranded U Navy surveillance plane in pieces. US officials, however, said there was still no agreement on the plane's return.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman said the two sides were discussing details and dates for the return of the plane, stranded at an air base on the southern island of Hainan since a collision April 1 with a Chinese fighter jet. Zhu Bangzao said talks included whether the pieces of the $80 million aircraft would be sent home by cargo plane or ship.
In Washington, a government official close to the situation said Thursday there is no agreement on how the EP-3E Aries II would be returned and that the Bush administration was puzzled by China's announcement.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that several days ago US negotiators reluctantly proposed -- as an alternative to repairing the plane and flying it off the island -- to take its wings and tail off and ship it out aboard a chartered cargo plane. The Chinese replied that this was not possible because the airfield on Hainan island could not accommodate such a large cargo plane.
Visiting U.S. technicians who examined the plane said it could be made airworthy. But China has repeatedly insisted that the plane not fly home.
"We do not agree to flying this plane out of China. That is impossible," Zhu said at a twice-weekly briefing for reporters.
The collision, which killed the Chinese fighter pilot, plunged relations between Beijing and Washington to their lowest level since NATO bombed China's embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 during the air war over Kosovo.
The 24 crew members of the EP-3E were held for 11 days while China demanded that Washington apologize for the collision.