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Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up portraits of Causeway Bay Books shareholder Lee Bo (R) during a protest to call for an investigation behind the disappearance of five staff members of a Hong Kong publishing house and bookstore, outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, China in this January 3, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File

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By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Friday that a Hong Kong bookseller who disappeared from the Chinese-controlled city under mysterious circumstances last year had been removed under duress, and that the business community was "unnerved".

Lee Bo, the bookseller and British passport holder, disappeared in December from the former British colony and surfaced in China almost three months later. He has since returned to Hong Kong and said he had not been kidnapped by Chinese authorities as many suspected.

He has also said he would renounce his British citizenship.

But Hammond disputed Lee's explanation.

"On the basis of the evidence available to us, we are clear that he was removed from Hong Kong under duress," Hammond told a small group of reporters in Hong Kong.

"He is a British citizen. We have a consular duty towards him and our principal concern now is to ensure that he is returned to Hong Kong free of any duress, to carry on his life here without any constraints or impositions on him."

The disappearances of Lee and four other booksellers, who sold books critical of Chinese leaders, have provoked concern that China was using shadowy tactics to erode the "one country, two systems" formula under which Hong Kong has been governed since its return to China from British rule in 1997.

Chinese authorities have repeatedly said they would never do anything illegal and that Hong Kong's autonomy was fully respected.

There was no immediate response to a fax and email seeking comment from China's Foreign Ministry regarding Hammond's remarks.

Hammond also said the incident had rattled the business community and undermined confidence in the city's rule of law that has long been one of the pillars of the international investment and financial hub.

"There are people in the business community who are unnerved by this incident and we need everybody to make very clear that this is not going to happen again ... that this can be regarded as an isolated incident, not any kind of systemic issue."

Despite repeated requests, however, Hammond said British diplomats hadn't yet met with Lee, nor had they received a formal request from Lee to renounce his British citizenship.

Hammond's visit to Hong Kong was the first by a British foreign secretary in nearly five years.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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