HONG KONG (AP) _ Officials knew of problems at Hong Kong's new airport weeks before it began operating, but ruled out delaying the July opening because it would have damaged the government's reputation, Hong Kong's top civil servant said today,

Testifying before a panel of legislators as investigations into the problems began today, Chief Secretary Anson Chan said the government felt the airport was ready for operation.

Officials had ``looked at the necessary facilities and those were ready, although not everything was ready,'' said Chan, the most senior government official to have testified so far.

Chan admitted, however, that after the July date was set, it would have been difficult to change ``because it was a matter of reputation.''

In July, the much-anticipated opening of $20 billion Chek Lap Kok airport broke down into a costly fiasco as computer breakdowns and system problems crippled both passenger and cargo services. An ensuing ban on air cargo transport lasted for over a month.

Critics widely suspect government officials may have pressured the airport authority for an early July opening to coincide with a visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who dedicated the airport.

Several senior airport officials already have testified in a separate, independent probe ordered by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. The government ombudsman also is expected to launch a separate probe.

Chek Lap Kok airport was built on reclaimed land off a remote outlying island, replacing Hong Kong's 73-year-old Kai Tak airport.