The Parliamentary Secretary for Youth and Sport, Clyde Puli, spent 16 days in Beijing watching the Olympic Games on a trip that cost the public coffers €7,728.

He was joined by his wife and son, though when contacted yesterday his spokesman said their airfares were paid privately.

Sources said that some senior government officials were angered by the length of Mr Puli's stay in Beijing, especially considering that top officials of various countries - even those with prominent and successful athletes - limited their visits to a few days.

The Office of the Prime Minister declined to pass judgment on whether Mr Puli's stay was excessive and said that the decision was taken by Culture Minister Dolores Cristina and the Parliamentary Secretary after they received an invitation from the International Olympics Committee.

Mr Puli's spokesman defended the visit. He said: "The Parliamentary Secretary travelled economy class and not business class as any minister and high government official is entitled to do. The ticket of the chosen flight was bought after a call for quotations with the cheapest being chosen."

He added that the type of room chosen for the Parliamentary Secretary was the second cheapest out of five choices provided, as the cheapest type was already fully booked.

"Reservations followed a minimum stay period policy which was to be observed if one wished to be present for all of the Maltese athletes," the spokesman said, adding that this was a good opportunity for networking.

In fact, he said, the Parliamentary Secretary's stay in Beijing was not exclusively dedicated to the Olympic Games. He also attended a Commonwealth ministers' meeting as well as an informal meeting of EU ministers, the spokesman said.

During his stay the Parliamentary Secretary also expressed his support to each of the Maltese athletes, the spokesman said, adding that this presence was deeply appreciated by the athletes and members of the Maltese contingent.

However, sources contrasted the Parliamentary Secretary's trip to Beijing with Lawrence Gonzi's visit to Australia last year, during which the Prime Minister visited five cities and met members of the Maltese-Australian community in just 13 days. "He didn't have a minute to himself," the sources said, "and didn't stay an hour longer than necessary."

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