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The Independent Online
Reuters news agency has announced that it is shutting down its world news desk, picture and television operations in Hong Kong and moving them to Singapore next March.

The company denies that the closure has any connection with China's resumption of sovereignty over the British colony in less than seven months' time.

"If there was to be a concern about the handover," said Phil Mellchior, Reuters Managing Director East Asia, "it's not about people in the headquarters, it's about people on the front lines". He said the Hong Kong bureau would increase in size and that Reuters was continually trying to increase its editorial presence in China.

Although the withdrawal from Hong Kong is said not to be connected to the transfer of power, the decision was sufficiently sensitive to persuade Mr Mellchior to give the Hong K ong government prior notice of Reuters' intentions.

The timing of the announce- ment was also problematic, coming just a day after the appointment of Tung Chee-hwa as head of the first post- colonial government, making Reuters vulnerable to suggestions that it was snubbing the new order. However, the move out of Hong Kong comes as part of worldwide editorial changes at Reuters and was announced as an element in this package.

Staff in Hong Kong were surprised by the move, which Mr Mellchior said had been under consideration since 1992 when Reuters purchased large pre- mises in Singapore. One employee said: "It seems awfully funny to announce this a day after Tung Chee-hwa's election."

The company must have been aware of the situation in Hong Kong because Reuters' editor-in-chief, Mark Wood, visited both the colony and China just three weeks ago and had talks with senior leaders in both places.

Other international news organisations contacted last night expressed surprise at Reuters' move and said they had no plans to move out of Hong Kong. It is, however, believed that all the major companies have contingency plans for a move should the situation deteriorate in the territory.