BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Thursday the Australian embassy in China obstructed law enforcement when it sheltered two journalists who were wanted for questioning in the country and returned to Australia this week.
Chinese police last week told correspondents from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Australian Financial Review (AFR) they were barred from leaving the country and were wanted for questioning in relation to the case of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist currently detained in China.
The journalists sheltered in the embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai for several days while diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to leave, Australia's Foreign Minister said.
"The Australian embassy in China gave shelter to the relevant journalists [allowing them to] avoid China's investigation. This was blatant obstruction and interference in China's normal law enforcement," said Zhao Lijian, China's foreign ministry spokesman.
The pair were eventually questioned by China's state security ministry prior to their departure.
These actions went beyond the scope of consular services and the Australian side must give an explanation, said Zhao, speaking at a daily news conference in Beijing on Thursday.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The incident comes as tensions between China and Australia have escalated in recent days as the two sides have accused each other of jeopardizing the safety of journalists.
China's Foreign Ministry has maintained that the questioning of the journalists was part of normal law enforcement.
Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen and high-profile anchor on Chinese state television was detained in China last month. China's foreign ministry has said she is suspected of carrying out illegal activities, but Australia has said they do not know why she had been detained.
This week, China said four journalists working for state media in Australia were "harassed and oppressed" in a previously undisclosed incident in June when Australian intelligence authorities raided their homes and seized electronic devices.
They said the raids were related to an anti-interference investigation that is still ongoing in Australia.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has declined to comment.
(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)