BEIJING -- A Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper's report that Chinese President Xi Jinping took a mystery cab ride last month prompted an unusual denial from China's official Xinhua News Agency on Thursday, although the origins of the strange tale remain murky.

The Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported Thursday that Xi took the 26-minute, 8.2-kilometer (5-mile) ride on the evening of March 1 as claimed by taxi driver Guo Lixin. The report said Xi was accompanied by another passenger who rode in the front passenger seat, but who wasn't further identified.

The report said that after talking about Beijing's pollution, Guo took a closer look at his back-seat passenger and said: "When you take cars, does anyone tell you you look like a certain person? Anyone ever say you look like General Secretary Xi?"

Along with the story, the newspaper posted on its website a graphic of the route the cab supposedly took from Beijing's Drum Tower neighborhood, which is just north of the central leadership compound, to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse Hotel. Photos showed Guo pointing to a framed handwritten note on a piece of white paper supposedly from Xi that read, "Safe and smooth journey," in Chinese.

Later Thursday, a Xinhua reporter who covers transportation issues posted a statement on Weibo, China's popular Twitter-like website, saying Beijing transport authorities confirmed the trip, but it was swiftly deleted. Xinhua then issued a statement saying further checking showed the report was false.

By 6 p.m., the newspaper had issued an apology and removed the content from its website. "After checking, this is false news. We are deeply disturbed and extremely regretful," the apology said.

The report generated suspicions among some Chinese readers almost from the start, in part because Xi supposedly hailed and got a taxi at rush hour on a Friday in Beijing, a usually difficult time to find a cab. A call to the Shengdali taxi company, where Guo supposedly works, to ask about Xi's alleged ride was answered by a woman who said, "I don't know about this," and then hung up.

It wasn't clear how a newspaper that has close links to China's ruling Communist Party and is usually considered authoritative on political matters would run a false report, especially one so apparently bizarre.

While Xi has sought to portray himself as in-touch with regular people, Chinese leaders are surrounded by heavy security at all times, and it would be highly unusual for him to take public transport. China's former emperors were known for sometimes sneaking out of their palaces incognito to have fun or conduct secret inspections, but it is difficult to imagine the head of the party, military and world's second-largest economy taking such a risk.

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  • In this Sunday March 10, 2013 photo, soldiers dressed as ushers guard front row seats on the second floor of the main hall of the Great Hall of the People, while a live video image of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party's General Secretary and the nation's incoming-President, is shown on a screen during a plenary session of the National People's Congress, in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Sunday, March 10, 2013 photo, delegates from the Chinese People's Liberation Army march in formation into the Great Hall of the People to attend a plenary session of the National People's Congress, in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a police car drives past while paramilitary policemen in uniforms and in plainclothes keep watch on people who gathered to see a flag-raising ceremony at dawn at Tiananmen Square before the opening session of the annual National People's Congress that is to be held later in the morning inside the nearby Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Sunday, March 10, 2013 photo, a monk, who is also a delegate, holds a cup of tea while looking for an unoccupied chair outside the main hall of the Great Hall of the People, where a plenary session of the National People's Congress is being held, in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Sunday, March 10, 2013 photo, delegates sip tea, chat, rest, and take photos outside the main hall of the Great Hall of the People, where a plenary session of the National People's Congress is being held, in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Sunday, March 10, 2013 photo, a delegate takes a nap while other delegates chat and drink tea outside the main hall of the Great Hall of the People, where a plenary session of the National People's Congress is being held, in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Thursday, March 7, 2013 photo, delegates of the National People's Congress chat, use a mobile phone, and give an interview in a corridor at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Thursday, March 7, 2013 photo, National People's Congress delegates from eastern China's Fujian province attend a group discussion, with top provincial leaders seated in the center, at Fujian Hall inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Thursday, March 7, 2013 photo, soldiers dressed as ushers guard a corridor that leads to halls where closed-door meetings of the National People's Congress delegations are held, while an anti-explosive device, left, and a vase, right, are placed nearby, inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Thursday, March 7, 2013 photo, National People's Congress delegates, one dressed in ethnic attire, walk past a glass screen to join a group discussion of delegates from central China's Hunan province at Hunan Hall inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Thursday, March 7, 2013 photo, top regional officials, who are also delegates, shake hands while other National People's Congress delegates from northern China's Inner Mongolia region wait for a group discussion to begin at the Inner Mongolia Hall inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Thursday, March 7, 2013 photo, soldiers dressed as ushers guard corridors, stairways, and elevators while a delegate, second from right, walks past them inside the Great Hall of the People, where delegates of the National People's Congress are holding group discussions in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, delegates from the People's Liberation Army walk up steps to enter the Great Hall of the People to attend an opening session of the National People's Congress on a hazy day in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Monday, March 4, 2013 photo, a soldier dressed as an usher, front, stands guard at the Great Hall of the People, while delegates, one of them wearing an ethic outfit, walk up the steps to attend a session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Monday, March 4, 2013 photo, ethnic minority delegates wearing traditional attire march to the Great Hall of the People to attend a session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a delegate, right, enters the main hall of the Great Hall of the People while soldiers dressed as ushers guard the entrances during the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, a delegate leaves the main hall of the Great Hall of the People while other delegates of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference read copies of a government work report during the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Tuesday, March 5, 2013 photo, delegates leave the Great Hall of the People after an opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

  • In this Sunday, March 3, 2013 photo, journalists wander in front of an electronic screen that is showing slogans as part of a Chinese Communist Party's propaganda video at Tiananmen Square, while the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference is held in the nearby Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. The slogan reads "To deepen the study and implementation of the spirit of the Communist Party's 18th National Congress." (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)