Czech president's aides travel to China to look into CEFC chief reports

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Two close aides of Czech President Milos Zeman traveled to China this week to seek information about embattled CEFC China Energy chief Ye Jianming, Zeman’s spokesman said on Thursday, amid concerns about the private company’s investments in the country.

The once-acquisitive energy firm has come under pressure amid reports its chairman had been investigated for alleged economic crimes and that the group has had to scramble to secure short-term funding.

That raised concerns about the group’s investments in the Czech Republic which include a stake in J&T financial group, ownership of the Lobkowicz breweries, Czech top flight soccer team Slavia Praha or hotels in Prague.

It has also agreed to buy a $9.1 billion stake in Russian oil major Rosneft ROSN.MM.

CEFC has denied the reports about its chairman and said it was operating normally.

Last Friday, CEFC’s Prague-based unit CEFC Group (Europe) said it had raised its capital by 13.5 billion crowns ($653 million) and that was “a signal that the company is a stable and credible partner.”

President Zeman has made the improvement of ties with Beijing one of the hallmarks of his first term in office, culminating with a three-day official visit of China’s President Xi Jinping in Prague in March 2016.

Zeman’s chief of staff, Vratislav Mynar, and his chief advisor, Martin Nejedly, went to China on Tuesday, presidential spokesman Jiri Ovcacek said, confirming previous reports by Czech media which also said that the two were seeking information about Ye.

“They traveled on assignment from (the president),” Ovcacek said in an SMS response to Reuters question.

Ye Jianming also serves as a special advisor to President Zeman.

A source with knowledge of the mission said that Jaroslav Tvrdik, deputy chairman of CEFC Group (Europe), CEFC’s Prague-based unit, was also traveling with Mynar and Nejedly.

A Shanghai-based spokesman for CEFC said he had no information of the visit. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he was not aware of the situation but noted that the Chinese and Czech governments have good relations.

CEFC also owns 49.9 percent of airline firm Travel Service, which controls national carrier Czech Airlines.

Reporting by Robert Muller; additional reporting by Aizhu Chen Michael Martina and Josephine Mason in BEIJING; Editing by Toby Chopra and Sam Holmes