Three U.S. Navy fliers whose plane crashed near a group of disputed islands off the coast of Vietnam can be released as soon as "arrangements are finished," a Vietnamese official said Saturday.
A spokesman from Vietnam's Embassy in Bangkok also said the two men and a woman rescued Tuesday after their Navy transport ditched at sea near the Spratly Islands were now in northern Vietnam. There was no information on whether the three Americans were injured in the crash.U.S. Ambassador to Thailand William Brown submitted proposals Saturday to Le Mai, Vietnam's ambassador to Thailand, for the aviators' return. The prompt response by Vietnamese Embassy officials was seen as another sign of a thaw in the icy relations that have existed between Washington and Hanoi since the U.S. pullout of Vietnam in 1975.
"This morning, Mr. William Brown came to see my ambassador and made a number of relevant proposals concerning the three American crew members," said Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Nguyen Van Quan. "My ambassador accepted the ideas and will transfer them to my government."
The spokesman said Le Mai would inform Brown of Hanoi's response but indicated that no problems were anticipated.
"I believe it was an accident due to engine failure," Quan said. "There have been no accusations - only an exchange of information.
"Once the arrangements are finished the fliers can go home," he said.
Quan said the three fliers - Lt. Richard K. Maurer, 30, of Harvey's Lake, Pa.; Lt. j.g. Elizabeth Steinnecker, 29, of Tampa, Fla.; and Petty Officer 1st Class Michael R. Neel, 34, of Albuquerque, N.M. - were in northern Vietnam.
A U.S. Navy spokesman said the crew was forced to ditch the twin-engine CT-39E Tuesday afternoon in the South China Sea during a routine flight from Singapore to Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines when their navigational instruments failed and the plane ran out of fuel.
Vietnamese naval forces rescued the aviators shortly after their plane went down, Radio Hanoi said. The fliers were being well treated, but the report failed to mention whether any of the three was injured.
The Vietnamese Embassy informed Brown on Friday that Vietnam had rescued the fliers and brought them to the mainland.
In Washington, State Department spokewoman Phyllis Oakley said Friday the United States appreciated "the humanitarian assistance rendered in this situation by the Vietnamese government officials, their rapid action in rescuing the crew, and their cooperation in facilitating the interim care and safe return of the crew members."
In March, Vietnam and China fought a brief, bitter naval battle for sovereignty over the largely uninhabited Spratly islands, which left at least 77 Vietnamese sailors dead or missing.
The islands, about 250 miles east of the Vietnamese coast and 600 miles south of China's Hainan island, are also claimed by Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.