China silent over Iceland envoy's whereabouts amid reports of his arrest for spying for Japan

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Foreign Ministry refused to say on Wednesday where its ambassador to Iceland was or who was even representing Beijing in the country, following reports he had been arrested by state security for passing secrets to Japan.

The New York-based Chinese language portal Mingjing News reported on Tuesday that Chinese ambassador to Iceland Ma Jisheng and his wife had been taken away by Chinese state security earlier this year.

It said Mr Ma was suspected of becoming a Japanese spy while working in the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo between 2004 and 2008. The story was then picked up by Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper and subsequently carried by some mainland news sites, though many of those stories were later deleted.

Asked whether the reports were true, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he had "no information on this". Mr Hong gave the same reply when asked where Mr Ma currently was and who the Chinese ambassador to Iceland was if Mr Ma was no longer there. It was not possible to contact either Mr Ma or his wife for comment.

The Japanese government also declined to comment. "We are aware of the media report," a Japanese government official told Reuters. "But it's basically China's domestic issue and therefore the Japanese government would like to refrain from commenting."

A link on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Iceland to the ambassador's resume showed up blank. A welcome address on the site's front page was attributed only to the Chinese ambassador to Iceland, without giving a name.

However the site gave prominent display to an article written by Mr Ma in an Icelandic newspaper in February, in which he criticised Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine last year.

The Yasukuni shrine honours Japan's war dead, including 14 leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal, and relations between China and Japan plunged to a new low after Abe's visit there.

Ties between the two nations, long at loggerheads over what China calls Japan's failure to properly atone for its behaviour during World War II, have also been affected by a dispute over ownership of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.