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U.S. 'disturbed' by case of missing Hong Kong booksellers

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it was disturbed by reports that five Hong Kong booksellers critical of China’s leaders had disappeared.

Lee Bo, 65, a shareholder of Causeway Bay Books and a British passport holder, went missing from Hong Kong last week, though his wife has said he voluntarily travelled to China and has withdrawn a missing person report.

Four other associates of the publisher that specializes in selling gossipy political books on China’s Communist Party leaders have been unaccounted for since late last year.

The disappearances, and China’s silence, have stoked concerns that they were abducted by mainland agents in shadowy tactics that erode the “one-country, two-systems” formula under which Hong Kong has been governed since its 1997 return to China.

“We are disturbed by reports of the disappearances,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told a regular news briefing. “We share the concern of the people of Hong Kong regarding these disappearances.”

He said the United States was closely following the issue and noted a Jan. 4 statement by Hong Kong’s chief executive expressing concern about the potential implications of this case. “We share those concerns,” he said.

On Wednesday, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said any abduction of people from Hong Kong to face charges elsewhere would be an “egregious breach” of Beijing’s promises on how it would rule the former British colony.

He said that after a two-day visit to Beijing there had been “no progress” on determining the booksellers’ whereabouts, after raising the case with Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday that China opposes “any foreign country interfering with China’s domestic politics, or interfering with Hong Kong affairs.”

Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mohammad Zargham