KABUL/BEIJING (Reuters) - China is unaware of the deportation of Chinese nationals from Afghanistan on spying charges, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said, days after the head of Afghanistan's top intelligence agency spoke about their detention.
The chief of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) told parliament on Monday that he could confirm the arrest of people from a "Chinese network" but said he could not provide details due to the sensitivity of the case.
India's Hindustan Times newspaper said at least 10 Chinese nationals linked to Beijing's spy agency had been detained in December in Kabul and later pardoned and deported.
Three high-ranking sources in Afghanistan told Reuters that 13 Chinese nationals, working as construction workers, carpenters and even running a clinic and bakery, were deported.
"I'm unaware of what you mentioned," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a media briefing in Beijing on Wednesday when asked about the Hindustan Times report.
"But I want to tell you that China and Afghanistan's relations have always been very friendly, and our cooperation is very friendly in every field and is proceeding normally."
China has looked to increase its influence and connectivity in the region through financing development projects under its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing has expressed interest in extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to neighbouring Afghanistan.
Chinese investment would be critical for Kabul as Western funding falls and becomes increasingly conditions-based.
On Monday, Afghan NDS chief Ahmad Zia Saraj told parliament: “Regarding the Chinese network, I can confirm for you that, yes, they have been arrested; however, I can't go into the details because of the sensitivity of the case.”
The high-ranking Afghan sources, at senior posts in the government, told Reuters that documents and materials the arrested Chinese nationals possessed showed they were working with an "unknown" Pakistani man believed to be a go-between Taliban insurgents, fighting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, and Islamabad.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, rejected any connection.
"It is nothing but mere propaganda," Mujahid told Reuters in a message.
Pakistan's foreign office and the Afghan Presidential Palace did not respond to requests for comment.
The high-ranking officials added that a special envoy of the Chinese government flew to Kabul and demanded the release of the detained people - and Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, asked for a formal apology.
The envoy, the officials said, told the Afghan officials that his government was unaware of the activities of the 13 men and women, and would investigate, following which the 13 flew back to China towards the end of last year.
(Reporting Hamid Shahlizi in Istanbul, Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Additional reporting and writing by Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad; Editing by Nick Macfie)