Australia pulls out last correspondents in China over arrest fears

(Update 2: adds statement from Foreign Correspondents Club, Chinese government in graphs 15, 16 and 18)

By Rocío Otoya

Sydney, Australia, Sep 8 (efe-epa).- The last two correspondents that Australia had in China were flown home from the country Monday night over fears that they would be detained amid diplomatic tensions between the two countries and after the recent arrest of an Australian journalist in the Asian nation, official sources confirmed on Tuesday.

Bill Birtles, a Beijing-based journalist for public broadcaster ABC, and Michael Smith, who worked in Shanghai for the Australian Financial Review, were questioned separately by China’s Ministry of State Security.

Birtles had spent four days sheltering at the Australian embassy in Beijing, while Smith sought the protection of the Australian consulate in Shanghai after Chinese authorities demanded the interviews and while Canberra negotiated for their passage out of the country, ABC said.

According to the Australian Financial Review, the journalists were banned from leaving the country until they answered questions about detained Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei.

“It’s nice to be home but deeply disappointing to leave China under such abrupt circumstances. It’s been a big part of my life & the past week was surreal,” Birtles wrote on Twitter after his arrival in Sydney on Tuesday.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne had earlier confirmed that her diplomats in Beijing and Shanghai negotiated with the Chinese authorities to ensure the journalists’ safe return.

“Those Australians have now arrived in Australia,” Payne said in a statement.

The events began last Wednesday when at midnight seven Chinese police officers turned up at Birtles’ apartment in Beijing while he was holding a farewell party with his friends and colleagues, ABC said. He was due to leave China on Thursday morning on advice from the Australian authorities.

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