January 31, 2019 / 11:28 AM / 15 days ago

French police rubbish claim that death of China's HNA executive was deliberate

General view of Bonnieux, near Avignon, France, July 4, 2018, the day after Chinese conglomerate HNA Group Co-Chairman Wang Jian died during a business trip in what local police said appeared to be an accidental fall from a wall. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

PARIS (Reuters) - French police on Thursday reaffirmed that the death of HNA Group Co-Chairman Wang Jian during a business trip in France last summer was accidental, dismissing a newspaper report that he more likely committed suicide.

A police investigation concluded Wang, who had come under pressure from Beijing over HNA’s huge debts, fell off a wall in the village of Bonnieux, near Avignon, on July 3 while taking a photograph.

In a front-page splash on Thursday, France’s daily Liberation said eye-witness accounts contradicted the police investigation’s findings. One witness, a local street-cleaner, said Wang jumped rather than fell.

“Only Liberation and its journalists believe this thesis of suicide,” a spokeswoman for the national gendarmerie told Reuters. “We stand by our investigation’s conclusions that this was an accidental death.”

HNA declined to comment. The local prosecutor also declined to respond to Liberation’s report.

Wang was regarded as the architect of an eye-popping $50 billion acquisition spree that saw HNA accumulate assets ranging from a stake in Deutsche Bank AG to high-profile overseas properties. Under pressure from Beijing, HNA sold off many of those assets to slash debt.

An aviation-to-financial services conglomerate that counts Hainan Airlines Co as its core asset, HNA’s sales include holdings in companies such as Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc, Park Hotels & Resorts and Spain’s NH Hotels.

At the time of Wang’s death, analysts said pressure on HNA deleverage continued to be enormous and that his passing would complicate the conglomerate’s efforts to restructure and pay of borrowings.

Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry in Paris; additional reporting by Kane Wu in Hong Kong; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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