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UK says businessman slain in China was not a spy

LONDON (Reuters) - A businessman whose murder sparked political upheaval in China was not a British spy, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday, trying to quell speculation that has swirled around the man’s mysterious death.

British businessman Neil Heywood is seen sitting on a chair in this undated photo taken at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. REUTERS/Stringer

An influential parliamentary committee had asked Hague for more information about what Britain knew about Neil Heywood’s death in a hotel room in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqinq last November, and about media speculation he may have been a British spy or informant.

“It is long-established government policy neither to confirm nor deny speculation of this sort,” Hague said in a letter to Richard Ottaway, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee.

“However, given the intense interest in this case it is, exceptionally, appropriate for me to confirm that Mr. Heywood was not an employee of the British government in any capacity,” he wrote.

Heywood, 41, was only an “occasional contact of the embassy, attending some meetings in connection with his business”, Hague said, adding that he was not known to the British Consulate-General in Chongqing.

Heywood’s relatives and a British security source also have denied he was a spy.

Chinese police initially attributed Heywood’s death to cardiac arrest due to drinking too much alcohol. But this month Chinese authorities said they believed it was a murder and named the wife of Bo Xilai, a former Communist Party chief of Chongqing, as a suspect.

Heywood’s death ended Bo’s hopes of emerging as a national leader and is potentially the most divisive issue the Communist Party has faced since Zhao Ziyang was sacked as Party chief in 1989 for opposing the brutal army crackdown on student-led demonstrations for democracy centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that year.

The British foreign ministry has come under fire at home for being slow to demand that China investigate the case.

Ottaway asked Hague last week why ministers were briefed about Heywood’s death only in February when Foreign Office officials were told weeks earlier about rumors among expatriates that Heywood’s death was suspicious.

Hague said Foreign Office officials had judged at the time that ministers did not need to be told about an “uncorroborated report”.

Hague was not told about the case until February 7, the day after Wang Lijun, Bo’s once-trusted police chief, fled to a U.S. consulate in an apparent attempt to secure asylum, alleging that Bo’s wife was involved in Heywood’s death.

After discussion with Heywood’s family, Britain formally asked China to investigate the case eight days later.

“We acted to seek an investigation as soon as we judged that concerns about the circumstance of Mr. Heywood’s death justified it, and we are pleased that the Chinese are now investigating,” Hague said.

Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Michael Roddy