BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese official denied on Thursday saying the government plans to let tourists visit the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which could have added another irritant to maritime tensions with Vietnam and other neighbours.
China and Vietnam maintain rival claims across swathes of the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands. Called the Xisha islands in Chinese, they are a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs that are controlled by Beijing.
That dispute and a mosaic of other conflicting claims have set China against Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
Deng Xiaogang, a vice mayor of Haikou on the southern island of Hainan that is near the islands, had been quoted in Chinese state media as saying authorities hoped to allow maritime tourism in the Paracels within the year.
But the website of Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily later cited Deng as saying he had never spoken to the media about this issue.
"(I) don't understand anything about tourism in the Paracels", he told the People's Daily.
The report also said he no longer had any position in Hainan's tourism department.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, asked about the possibility of promoting tourism in the Paracels, simply repeated the government's view that the islands' sovereignty indisputably belonged to China.
Reporting by Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher