China says it has released three women detained this week for their efforts to seek justice for relatives killed in the government's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Word of the women's release came in a dispatch from the government news agency, Xinhua, days after Foreign Ministry officials denied reports that they had been detained in the first place.

The New York-based Human Rights in China group this week quoted relatives as saying the women had been taken away by plainclothes police officers in Beijing and in the eastern city of Wuxi.

In announcing the women's release Friday, the Xinhua news agency said police had detained the women for engaging in what it described as illegal activities sponsored by overseas forces.

Zhang Xianling and Ding Zilin both lost their sons in June 1989, when government troops used tanks and guns to crack down on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The husband of the third woman, Huang Jinping, was also among those killed.

All three women belong to a support group known as the "Tiananmen Mothers," whose aim is to seek reparations for the killings, and an explanation from the government on the crackdown.

China's Communist leadership has never allowed public discussion or commemoration of the incident, and human rights advocates say officials are working to stem any activities as the 15th anniversary of the bloody crackdown approaches.

One day after a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said he questioned the truth of reports that the women had been detained, the United States condemned the detentions and called for the women's immediate release.

China is battling new international criticism over its human rights record, especially from the United States. Beijing recently suspended its human rights dialogue with Washington after U.S. officials announced they would seek a resolution condemning China's record at the U.N. human rights commission meeting in Geneva.

The U.S. Department of State last month said it remained concerned over what it called China's backsliding on agreements reached during human rights talks in 2002.