Though Chinese officials refused to give out the exact date for the launch, a Hong Kong-based newspaper said on Sunday that it could be anytime after the Communist Party Central Committee plenary meeting that ends on 14 October

"China will become the third country in the world to launch manned space flight," said Wang Shuquan, deputy secretary of the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

Another Beijing-backed newspaper in Hong Kong reported that Chinese astronauts have already begun training at a base in north-west China in the actual spacecraft that is to take them into space.

Rehearsals

They were practicing and familiarising themselves with how to operate the spacecraft.

"China will become the third country in the world to launch manned space flight"

Chinese official

They were also rehearsing how to deal with a variety of possible problems, the newspaper reported.

A pool of 14 Chinese astronauts had arrived at the Jiuquan base in Gansu province, newspapers had reported last week. 

Outlining the communist country's space ambitions, Wang said that even lunar landing and flight experiments were being planned. 

Some overseas scientists predict China will accelerate its space programme and could have its own space station by 2008.