Beijing raises possibility of fighter pilot’s death after extensive search


BEIJING, AFP

Mainland China Wednesday for the first time raised the possibility that missing fighter pilot Wang Wei was dead, in a move that could be preparing the population for a resolution of the spy plane crisis.

For the past 11 days the official mainland Chinese media has given blanket coverage to the massive search for Wang, who parachuted into the South China Sea after his jet collided with a U.S. spy plane on April 1.

Until Wednesday the talk was of miracle survival and never giving up hope, but a senior navy official was quoted in leading newspapers as saying it may be time to face up to Wang’s death.

“The longer the time passes the possibility of Wang Wei living becomes less and less,” Lieutenant General Hu Yanlin, vice commissar of the navy, told Wang’s wife Ruan Guoqin.

“We have to face the unfortunate reality that we don’t want to see,” said Hu, in comments carried on the front page of the Beijing Youth Daily and in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party.

The search for Wang has taken on almost mythical proportions since President Jiang Zemin said two days after the collision he should be found “at all costs”.

The official Xinhua news agency stressed Wednesday the search was still going on.

Xinhua said by Tuesday evening the search had comprised 95 warship missions, 107 aircraft sorties and more than 1,000 search missions by civilian vessels and helicopters.

The crew of the U.S. spy plane involved in the collision with Wang’s jet has been held in Chinese custody on the island of Hainan since the incident after they were forced to make an emergency landing.

Diplomats in Beijing said it was expected that mainland China would formally announce that Wang was dead, or missing presumed dead, before it would release the crew of the U.S. plane.