CIA decorates two ex-agents, jailed in China for 20 years

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has recognised two former intelligence agents who spent more than 20 years jailed in China after their plane was shot down.

The two agents, Mr John Downey and Mr Richard Fecteau, were awarded the "Distinguished Intelligence Cross", the CIA's highest honour, during a ceremony held on an unspecified date last month, the CIA said in a statement issued on Monday.

During a mission in November 1952, the two men were trying to retrieve an agent from Chinese territory, by flying a plane close to the ground allowing him to hook on. "The agent, who unbeknownst to (the) CIA had been compromised by the Chinese, had promised valuable information in clandestine messages to his (agency) handlers," the agency recounted in its statement.

When the plane swooped down to grab him, "Chinese anti-aircraft fire erupted", bringing down the plane. Two members of the team were killed, but Mr Downey and Mr Fecteau survived - though when weeks passed with no contact, the CIA assumed they had died. Their families were sent letters claiming the men had died in an accident on a commercial flight.

It was only two years later, when the Chinese authorities began a public trial, that the CIA discovered the two men were still alive. The Chinese court sentenced Mr Downey to life in prison and Mr Fecteau to 20 years.

While jailed, Mr Fecteau was interrogated, asked to provide names of fellow CIA agents, but he resisted.

"Fecteau provided plenty of physical descriptions and names, all which happened to belong to members of the Boston University football team," the statement said.

"Both men remained in captivity until their release in the early 1970s," the CIA said, without explaining the date or the circumstances of their release.

At that time, the United States, under president Richard Nixon, and China were engaged in a warming in their diplomatic relations as the two faced a common enemy, the USSR - a rapprochement cemented when Mr Nixon visited Peking (Beijing) in February 1972.