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The Clinton administration formally sought the cooperation of the Chinese government Friday in a joint investigation of the recent, illicit smuggling of Chinese assault rifles into the United States, senior U.S. officials said.

The State Department request to a senior official of the Chinese Embassy followed a detailed briefing about the case for other Chinese officials by experts at the Justice Department, which had helped supervise a 16-month sting operation that nabbed seven alleged conspirators and 2,000 automatic rifles in California on Wednesday.There was no immediate reply from Beijing, where the Foreign Ministry announced a Chinese probe of the alleged involvement of officials of two government-owned arms manufacturing firms, known as Norinco and Polytechnologies. Both companies denied any role in the smuggling, with a Polytechnologies spokesman labeling a report of the charges "a sheer fabrication."

"I think it's fair to say that they (the Chinese government) are in a listening mode now," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters. "I'm not aware of any substantial Chinese response."

Burns has said that Washington is just beginning to probe whether officials of the Chinese government were aware of the smuggling scheme, as repeatedly alleged during the sting operation by a key figure named in the indictment, 49-year old Taiwanese national Hammond Ku. "Obviously, we'll be asking a lot of questions," Burns said.

But other senior administration officials have said that the Chinese government will not be a target of major U.S. scrutiny in the case, due to a presumption - as one official put it Friday - that the smuggling operation was a straightforward criminal operation and that no one in China's ruling elite was likely involved.

According to the federal indictment, Ku told undercover agents of the U.S. Customs Service on March 23 and May 17 last year that "the Chinese government knew exactly what was going on" in the negotiations over illicit exports of assault rifles and heavier arms to the United States.

As production of the rifles neared completion at a Norinco factory in Dalian, an hour's drive from Beijing, Ku traveled there and was escorted around by someone he claimed "was responsible for exporting arms all over the world with the Chinese government," the indictment states.

Ku later assured the undercover agents that after a brief delay, the Chinese government had specifically approved the clandestine export to the United States of the barrels for the automatic rifles. He said such approval was needed because barrels are subject to special control.

Ku, who was among those arrested on Wednesday, had also said that two other major figures in the conspiracy - Norinco export manager Qim Qi Xiu and vice president Guo Chen Kum - had to obtain Beijing's permission to visit the United States because they "work for the government," the indictment states.