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By Tanya M.C. Mendiola

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (April 13, 2001 - Pacific Daily News)---Guam’s participation in the return of crew members of a U.S. spy plane reconfirms the territory’s military strategic importance, local and federal officials said yesterday.

The Chinese government said Wednesday it would release 24 service members of a high-tech Navy EP-3E surveillance plane that made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island April 1, after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea.

Guam’s military branches worked together to prepare for the arrival of a chartered Continental Boeing 737-800 jet that brought the detained crewmembers back to U.S. soil yesterday.

Lt. Monica Richardson, Navy spokeswoman on Guam, said local military officials did not know beforehand about plans to return the spy plane crew to Guam but were ready to assist in the operation.

"We were always prepared in case they needed us and it just turned out they called on us," she said.

Richardson said Guam’s participation shows how vital the island is as a U.S. territory.

"It enforces our strategic importance," Richardson said. "It just shows that the military here on Guam -- working together -- we are able to take care of contingency operations. The Navy and the Air Force (worked) together to get our 24 service members home."

Lt. Cmdr. Terry Sutherland, Pentagon spokesman, said Guam’s proximity to China and the availability of resources were important to yesterday’s operation.

Top Washington, D.C., officials met to discuss options. Because release conditions included a non-military aircraft retrieving the service members, Guam was chosen, Sutherland said.

"Guam was a big part in this because China required we come out in a civilian aircraft, and Continental has a hub (on the island)," Sutherland said.

"It worked out very well. Guam does have very strategic importance."

The spy plane’s crew was on island only for a few hours of rest and to make phone calls to family before departing for Hawai‘i from Andersen Air Force Base.

Tech. Sgt. Jon Hanson, U.S. Air Force spokesman on Guam, said although yesterday’s event was a Navy operation, it was a team effort involving both military branches as well as the community.

"This is a Navy operation, basically, because the crew is Navy, but it’s done at an Air Force base because we have a runway and the plane (to take them to Hawai‘i)," Hanson said. "It is not just a Navy and Air Force operation -- it involved the island of Guam."

Tom Michels, Guam Chamber of Commerce board chairman, said yesterday’s event was good for Guam. The chamber supports an increased military presence on island.

"We are extremely pleased that this matter has been resolved, and that these men and women have been repatriated," Michels said. "It was a good opportunity in the national and international media, this being the first American soil that they were brought to. Guam is an ideal, secure, forward-deployed facility."

Gerald Berkley-Coats, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Guam, said China will probably keep the spy plane.

"We’ll probably never get the plane back, or at least not whole," he said.

"The stuff on that plane is very sophisticated. It will definitely enhance their technological capability."

"It will somewhat compromise any future operations of the United States, to say the least, in the short run."

For additional reports from the Pacific Daily News, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Pacific Daily News (Guam).

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