By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A British businessman murdered in China in a high-profile case of political intrigue was an informal source of information for Britain's foreign intelligence agency, MI6, two sources familiar with the matter said.
The sources confirmed the substance of a news report earlier Tuesday alleging that U.K. businessman Neil Heywood, who died under suspicious circumstances a year ago in the Chinese city of Chongqing, had been in contact with MI6 and had been a "willful and knowing informant."
The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, reiterated public denials by top British government officials that Heywood had ever been an MI6 staff officer. In an April letter to a member of Parliament, William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, declared that "Mr. Heywood was not an employee of the British government in any capacity."
When asked about the Heywood allegation today, a spokeswoman for the British embassy in Washington said: "We don't comment on intelligence matters."
The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Heywood's contact in MI6 had once described him as "useful." The newspaper said Heywood, who acted as a "freelance" consultant advising companies and individuals on business in China, for about a year had provided British intelligence with information on intrigue inside the family of Bo Xilai, a Chinese Communist Party boss whose spectacular downfall earlier this year caused political upheaval.
The Journal reported that Heywood had not been paid for information by MI6 and that the British agency had not given him "tasking," meaning it had not asked him to perform specific assignments or dig up specific information.
The Journal said Heywood had dealings with various British companies and politicians, including a member of the House of Lords who met Heywood several times in the company of his MI6 contact.
While Heywood's high-level Chinese contacts were impressive, there are indications that British authorities regarded him as unreliable and treated him and his information with caution.
According to news reports and official Chinese accounts, Heywood was murdered after he flew last November to Chongqing to meet with members of Bo's family. Bo, then that city's Communist Party boss, had been expected to be promoted to the Party's highest echelon this year.
According to an account presented at the trial of Gu Kailai, Bo's wife and Heywood's alleged killer, Gu murdered Heywood by poisoning him with cyanide in his hotel room in Chongqing.
Heywood's body was cremated without an autopsy. His family was told that he died of a heart attack, while the Journal said British authorities were advised he had died from excessive alcohol consumption.
The alleged murder plot against Heywood began to unravel after Chongqing's former police chief, Wang Lijun, took refuge briefly in a U.S. consulate in China and reportedly told American diplomats about Gu's role in Heywood's murder and her husband's involvement in corruption.
Gu was subsequently convicted of Heywood's murder and given a suspended death sentence. Bo Xilai was sacked from the Communist Party's Politburo and now awaits trial on charges of corruption and abuse of power.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Warren Strobel and Ciro Scotti)