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Interpol asks China for information as concern grows over its missing president

Meng Hongwei, head of the international police agency, seemingly disappeared on a recent trip to China.

PARIS — The international police agency Interpol says it has asked Chinese authorities for information about its president, Meng Hongwei, who seemingly vanished on a trip to China.

The Lyon-based agency said in a brief statement Saturday that "it looks forward to an official response from China's authorities to address concerns over the president's well-being."

Interpol said it used law-enforcement channels to submit its request for information about Meng's status.

Meng's wife says she hasn't heard from him since he left Lyon at the end of September. France has launched its own investigation. French authorities say he boarded a plane and arrived in China, but the 64-year-old's subsequent whereabouts are unknown.

To make matters murkier, Meng is not just the head of Interpol: He is also a vice minister for public safety in China.

Whether China was taking action is unclear. The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, hinted that Meng may have been the latest target of an ongoing campaign against corruption in China.

The newspaper said that upon landing last week Meng was "taken away" for questioning by what it said were "discipline authorities."

The term usually describes investigators in the ruling Communist Party who probe graft and political disloyalty. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party's secretive internal investigation agency, had no announcements on its website about Meng and could not be reached for comment.

Meng is the first from his country to serve as Interpol's president, a post that is largely symbolic but powerful in status and not without political weight. But because Interpol's secretary general is responsible for the day-to-day running of the police agency's operations, Meng's absence may have little operational effect.

Far from being a Hollywood-style agency with agents toting weapons across the globe, Interpol is low-profile and discrete about its cases, unless it wants to talk.

The organization links up police officials of its 192 member states, who can use Interpol to disseminate their search for a fugitive, or a missing person. Only at the behest of a country does the information go public via a "red notice," the closest thing to an international arrest warrant.

But Interpol walks a fine line between its noble mission — facilitating international police cooperation — and the politics and policies of some of its member countries.

Meng's appointment as president in 2016 — amid Chinese leader Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-corruption drive — alarmed some human rights organizations, fearful it would embolden China to strike out at dissidents and refugees abroad.

Meng has a shiny resume, having held down various positions within China's security establishment, including as a vice minister of public security — the national police force — since 2004. In the meantime, he served as head and deputy head of branches of the coast guard, all while holding positions at Interpol. His term in Lyon runs until 2020.

His duties in China would have put him in close proximity to former leaders, some who had fallen afoul of Xi's campaign. He likely dealt extensively with former security chief Zhou Yongkang, now serving a life sentence for corruption.

Xi has placed a premium on getting officials and businesspeople accused of fraud and corruption to return from abroad, making Meng's position even more sensitive.

China, in the midst of a weeklong holiday, offered no comment on Meng's disappearance.