B E I J I N G, China, July 3 -- The dismantled U.S. EP-3spy plane held on China's Hainan Island since April was flownout to the United States today, the U.S. Pacific Commandsaid.
The departure of the EP-3 more than a week ahead ofschedule removes a major impediment to improving U.S.-Chinarelations.
"The final flight of the AN-124 carrying the EP-3 departedLingshui at 4:45 a.m. EST," the Hawaii-based U.S.Pacific Command Web site said.
Lingshui is the Chinese air base where the EP-3 was heldsince April 1, when it made an emergency landing aftercolliding with an intercepting Chinese fighter jet.
China held the 24-member EP-3 crew for 11 days after thecollision in a standoff that roiled U.S.-China relations in thefirst months of the Bush administration.
It released them only after Washington said it was "verysorry" for the death of the Chinese pilot and for the spyplane's landing on Hainan without permission. China declaredthe lost pilot, Wang Wei, a revolutionary martyr.
Plane Bound for Georgia
The U.S. Pacific Command Web site, said thegiant Antonov cargo plane would land in Manila — where controltower officials said it would spend five hours — and Honoluluen route to Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga.
The 12-strong American recovery team was expected to leaveHainan on Wednesday and arrive in Hawaii at 6:30 p.m. ET the sameday, it said.
The technicians went to work dismantling the plane onlyafter talks on removing the plane had dragged on amid a seriesof other disputes, including one over a U.S. pledge of armssales to Taiwan — which China considers part of its sovereignterritory.
The United States had originally intended to repair theplane and fly it out.
China, demanding an end to U.S. spy flights off its coast,said allowing the plane to fly off Hainan would be a nationalhumiliation.
Beijing eventually agreed to let the plane be dismantledand flown out.
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