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Hong Kong says Singapore not part of probe into troop carriers

By James Pomfret and Fathin Ungku

HONG KONG/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Hong Kong said on Wednesday the Singapore government would not be criminally prosecuted over a licensing breach in the Chinese-ruled city in connection with the seizure of nine armoured vehicles in November.

Hong Kong authorities seized the Singapore military's troops carriers in November, as they were on their way home from military exercises in Taiwan.

After the vehicles were seized, Beijing, which regained sovereignty over the former British colony of Hong Kong in 1997, warned countries against maintaining military ties with Taiwan, which it views as a wayward province.

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Commissioner of Customs Roy Tang, speaking to reporters a day after Hong Kong said it would release the carriers, said the shipper could move them after all relevant paperwork had been completed.

"We did not identify any information which points to the possibility of the Singapore government being involved in the breach of the licensing conditions," Tang said.

"The Singapore government, from the very beginning, has not been the subject of the investigation."

Tang was referring to the alleged criminal breach of a licensing requirement related to the import, export and transhipment of "strategic commodities" through Hong Kong; one of the world's freest and busiest ports.

"The central government is of course aware of the issue," Tang said when asked if Beijing had intervened and whether there were any political considerations in returning the vehicles.

The seizure came amid mounting regional uncertainty and diplomatic strains between China and Singapore, which has strengthened its longstanding security ties with the United States in recent years and remains concerned about Beijing's assertive territorial stance in the South China Sea.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who was inaugurated on Friday, upset Beijing before taking office by casting doubt on the "one China" principle, under which Washington acknowledges Beijing's position of sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing the Hong Kong government handled the issue in accordance with the law.

"China has made representations with Singapore about this and hopes the Singapore government earnestly and scrupulously abides by the one China principle," Hua said.

Since a criminal prosecution could be involved, Tang said he was not in a position to divulge the parties under scrutiny nor any charges. Details would be made public in court, if it came to that, he said.

Responding to a question on whether Singapore had provided any concessions to Hong Kong, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the outcome was "positive".

"This issue is about the customs disputes ... I don't think there is any need to go beyond that," Ng said, when asked if Singapore would continue to hold military exercises in Taiwan.

Commercial shipping line APL had said it would make special efforts to expedite the process to get the carriers back to Singapore, he added.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had written to Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying requesting the return of the nine Terrex carriers.

(Reporting by James Pomfret in HONG KONG, additional reporting by Fathin Ungku in SINGAPORE and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)