The statement stops short of the full apology demanded by Beijing but twice uses the words "very sorry."
U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher "has received verbal assurances from the Chinese government that the air crew will be allowed to leave promptly," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The agreement will bring an end to the detention of the flight crew ... on Hainan island.
"Ambassador Prueher has delivered to the Chinese government a letter concerning this incident and we are working out with the Chinese government the arrangements for departure."
The letter includes a U.S. expression of regret for the presumed death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, whose fighter jet collided with the spy plane April 1, and says the United States is "very sorry" that the American plane landed on Chinese soil without permission, though it notes that the plane was "severely crippled."
Prueher's letter to the Chinese government sets up an April 18 meeting, whose agenda will include arrangements for release of the EP-3E reconnaissance plane. U.S. officials are operating under the assumption that the Chinese have stripped the plane of sophisticated surveillance equipment.
At the insistence of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the United States refused to say the Aemrican plane had violated Chinese airspace.
"My government understands and expects that our air crew will be permitted to depart China as soon as possible," Prueher wrote.
"Both President Bush and Secretary of State (Colin) Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss," the letter said.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said the 24 crew members would be released as soon as "appropriate travel procedures" were completed, according to a statement read on television and radio. He cited humanitarian grounds for the decision.
At the Pentagon, officials speaking on condition of anonymity said arrangements were in place for a commercial U.S. airliner to fly from the Pacific island of Guam to pick up the 24 Americans on Hainan and fly them to Hawaii after a brief stopover at Guam. The welcoming ceremony for the crew is likely to be held at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state later this week, the officials said.
Pentagon officials for days have been making plans to have a plane at the ready once the crew is released. Final plans would depend on whether China would allow a U.S. military plane to land on Hainan or insist on a civilian plane.
The early-morning announcement brought a predictable reaction from the families of the crew members.
"Yippee," exclaimed Amanda de Jesus of Long Beach, Calif., mother of crewman Josef Edmunds. She refused, in an interview on CBS' "The Early Show," to second-guess whether the release could have been arranged earlier. "All that mattered to me was getting my son back alive."
Fern Sonan of Lenhartsville, Pa., mother of Lt. Marcia Sonon, heard about her daughter's pending release on television and was waiting for a call from the Navy. "I think it's great. We're really proud of Marcia," she said, hurrying to get off the telephone.
The announcement came a day after President Bush seemed to be preparing Americans for a drawn-out ordeal. Uncertain whether the latest proposal would be accepted by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Bush cautioned: "Diplomacy sometimes takes a little longer than people would like. This administration is doing everything we can to end the stalemate in an efficient way,"
For the first time, he called the standoff a stalemate, and other administration officials said privately the situation had not changed much since the weekend.
On a visit to Uruguay, meanwhile, Jiang said the two countries were capable of settling the dispute. But he also said he still wants an apology.
"Taking into account the important role of the two countries, we have to find an adequate solution. I trust in the ability of both countries to resolve this issue," Jiang said Tuesday at a news conference in Uruguay, his third stop on a six-nation Latin American tour.
From the outset, China sought an apology and acceptance of blame from the United States. Bush ruled both out