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Blair denies approving Kelly leak

Blair received a grilling from Chinese students over Kelly's death.

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BEIJING, China -- UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has denied authorizing the identification of scientist David Kelly as the source for BBC stories that Downing Street "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons.

Speaking on a flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong, Blair told reporters: "I did not authorize the leaking of the name of David Kelly."

He was speaking as pressure mounted on his Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon over the naming of the weapons expert.

The scientist apparently committed suicide Friday, three days after giving evidence to a committee of MPs examining claims by the BBC that the government "sexed up" a dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) before the war in Iraq.

Kelly denied being the main source for the stories, which caused a furious row between the government and the BBC. However, on Sunday, the BBC revealed that he was their principal source.

Earlier on Tuesday, Blair received a grilling from Chinese students over Kelly's death.

During a visit to Beijing, he was asked about regaining public trust, his feelings on hearing of Kelly's apparent suicide and whether he had lied to the British people over Iraq.

Blair defended his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein, insisting it was "the right thing to do."

His visit comes as a leading British judge, Lord Hutton, prepares a public inquiry into the events leading up to Kelly's death. (Full story)

On Kelly, one student at Tsinghua University in Beijing asked Blair: "Can you tell us frankly what was your feeling when you heard the news of the death on the way to Japan? How do you get through this and regain people's trust?"

Blair replied: "This is a desperately sad time for the family of Dr. Kelly and his funeral has not been held yet and I don't want to say more about that situation except to say there will be a proper independent inquiry into what happened."

Blair says he will give evidence to Hutton's inquiry, although events seem to have dented his public standing in Britain, according to opinion polls published in British newspapers Tuesday.

His approval rating, which has been on a downward turn since the end of the Iraq war, fell further in the last month, an ICM survey for the Guardian showed.

A second poll for The Sun showed that a quarter of voters who supported Blair's Labour Party at the last election have switched to another party. (Blair under pressure)

In Beijing, one student challenged Blair: "You are the same age as my father, can you tell me honestly like you were talking to your own child that you never lied about the Iraq war?"

And another asked whether this was the toughest time of the Blair's political career, since Kelly's death and given the failure to find WMD in Iraq.

The British prime minister replied: "I have no doubt at all that Iraq was trying to develop these weapons. There's a group of people in Iraq now who are looking both at the program and the weapons themselves and the evidence of the weapons and the evidence of the programs."

Blair was also asked whether he regretted the war on Iraq and replied: "No, I don't regret it. I believe no matter how difficult it was, that it was that right thing to do. And I say that not simply in terms of the security of the world, but in terms of the suffering of the Iraqi people."

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