The Canadian government said today that China had apologized for sending secret agents to Canada under false pretenses in a bid to contact alleged smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing.

Lai, who is attempting to remain in Canada as a political refugee, is currently under house arrest in British Columbia.

China has accused Lai of running a smuggling ring that brought billions of dollars of goods into that country in the mid-1990s and bribed dozens of government officials to avoid paying taxes and duties.

A spokeswoman for Canada's Foreign Ministry said it had protested to Beijing after learning that the Chinese secret agents obtained visas with the help of China's Foreign Trade Ministry.

"The Chinese authorities have expressed regret over the incident," said the spokeswoman, Kimberly Phillips. "This can be characterized as an apology." She did not say how Canada had discovered the Chinese agents had been in the country.

The Vancouver Province newspaper said two Chinese government firms based in Vancouver had been used as cover for the failed mission, which took place in May 2000.

It said three agents from a clandestine anti-corruption team traveled to Canada with Lai's brother, who was taken out of jail to help lure Lai back to China. The brother died last month in a labor camp.

Lai, who fled to Canada with his family in 1999, has denied criminal wrongdoing.