By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala
DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzania on Friday denied allegations by a campaign group that Chinese officials smuggled out large amounts of illegal ivory during a state visit by President Xi Jinping last year.
Foreign Minister Bernard Membe rejected as "lies" a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which said members of Xi's large delegation of businessmen and officials had sent the ivory home in diplomatic bags on the presidential plane. China has called the allegations "baseless".
"Claims that the Tanzanian government neither cares nor takes any action against ivory smugglers are false," Membe told parliament. "The EIA report is fabricated... to tarnish the image of our country and our friend, the Chinese nation."
Poaching has risen in recent years across sub-Saharan Africa, where well-armed criminal gangs have killed elephants for tusks and rhinos for horns that are often shipped to Asia for use in ornaments and medicines.
The situation has been most dramatic in Tanzania, where the EIA said elephants "are again being slaughtered en masse to feed a resurgent ivory trade", with 10,000 killed last year alone. International trade in ivory has been banned since 1989.
Membe acknowledged that Tanzania was among the world's major sources of smuggled ivory, but denied that the Tanzanian and Chinese governments were involved in the illegal trade. He questioned the timing of the allegations, a week after Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete made a reciprocal state visit to China.
"Those who are spreading this cooked up report are jealous of China's success. They want to be the only ones doing trade with China, getting loans from China and attracting investors from China," said Membe. "Tanzania is a sovereign country, we will not be forced to choose our friends."
Tanzania and China signed investment deals worth more than $1.7 billion during Kikwete's visit to Beijing last month. The president said this week that China was his country's "all weather friend".
In recent years, Chinese companies have signed deals to build a $1.2 billion gas pipeline and a $3 billion coal and iron ore mine project in Tanzania.
Opposition leaders in the east African country called for an investigation into the allegations to be conducted by an international panel.
"If the reports are established to be false, action should be taken against those who made the allegations. But if the allegations are proven true, stern diplomatic measures should be taken against our Chinese friends," said opposition politician Zitto Kabwe.
(Editing by Duncan Miriri and Mark Trevelyan)