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BEIJING (Reuters) - Three Chinese astronauts landed safely back on earth on Sunday after a 68-hour voyage and space walk that showcased the country's technological mastery and were hailed as a major victory by its leaders.
Their Shenzhou ("sacred vessel") spacecraft parachuted down to the steppes of northern Inner Mongolia region at dusk. Doctors rushed to open the capsule and check the men as they readjusted to gravity and recovered from the punishing re-entry.
Spacewalker Zhai Zhigang was the first to emerge and was helped to a nearby folding chair, where he was greeted with flowers and applause and said he was "proud of his motherland."
Premier Wen Jiabao told the nation minutes later that the three were heroes for their efforts, which put China in an elite club of three nations that have managed a space walk.
"The complete success of the manned Shenzhou VII is a great stride forward for China's space technology," he said, adding that the country's efforts were focused only on science.
"Chinese people have ceaselessly sought the peaceful development and use of space technology," he said. China's rapidly advancing program has raised disquiet among Western governments and in Japan that it may have military ambitions in space, especially after conducting an anti-satellite missile test last year.
Zhai's brief but historic outing in a Chinese-designed space suit that cost $4.4 million capped a year in which the country has both coped with the tragedy of the devastating Sichuan earthquake and reveled in the Beijing Olympics.
The ability to conduct a space walk is key to a longer-term goal of assembling a space lab and then a larger space station, and maybe one day making a landing on the moon.
The feat has also provided the government with a welcome diversion from a scandal about toxic milk that has poisoned thousands of infants and killed four, inciting anger at home and tainting the "made in China" brand abroad.
From cosmopolitan Beijing and Shanghai to tiny rural hamlets, the astronauts' exploits have been followed on television by a mesmerized population, with millions glued to live broadcasts of the takeoff, space walk and landing.
The trio can expect an adoring welcome from the whole country when they are allowed out of quarantine, which the official Xinhua agency said would last around half a month.
Previous space pioneers, now national icons, have been showered with tributes and gifts ranging from luxury housing to traditional operas performed in their honor.
The fast-growing Asian power wants to be sure of a say in the future use of space and its resources, and has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong lamented that China could not even launch a potato into space.
China's first manned spaceflight was in 2003, followed by a two-man flight in 2005. The only other countries that have sent people into space are Russia and the United States.
The mission is also a great success for the Chinese Communist Party, which next year celebrates the 60th anniversary of its ascent to power, and Premier Wen's speech was peppered with jargon that emphasized its role in the space program.
Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Mark Trevelyan