THE Governor, Chris Patten, and British officials distanced themselves yesterday from an apparent gaffe by the Commander British Forces who said the Chinese will be free to take over Hongkong's military headquarters in 1997. Mr Patten stressed that no decision had been taken on the future of the defence estate and that everything still depended on the on-going talks of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group (JLG). But political commentators said Major-General John Foley's prediction that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would be able to take over the Prince of Wales Building in Central had caused irreparable harm to the British negotiating strength. Major-General Foley, who is on leave, said in an interview for Asia Television's Inside Story that the British Forces' Hongkong headquarters will stay in the Prince of Wales Building until the territory is returned to China. ''This is one of the buildings which I'm sure will, in due course, go to the PLA.'' He mentioned only the building, not the rest of the barracks site to the west, which Chinese sources have said is an important part of their plans to locate the PLA headquarters in Central. Mr Patten and JLG officials moved to dispute the commander's supposition, emphasising there was no guarantee that any part of the Prince of Wales Barracks - seen as the jewel in the defence estate crown - would be handed to the PLA. ''At the end of the day, what we have to balance is first of all the requirements of the Garrison in Hongkong both today and in the future and, secondly, the importance of using land and parts of the defence estate which aren't required for defence purposes in the interest of the development of Hongkong,'' Mr Patten said. ''That's a balance which we're determined to strike as best as we can for the ordinary people of Hongkong,'' he said, adding that he was not in a position to make any announcement. Foreign Office representative Chris Osborne said: ''I'm not saying he [General Foley] spoke out of turn. ''He cannot predict exactly how the agreement will turn out. ''He cannot have been talking on the basis of any agreement as there has been no agreement.'' He said the negotiations would continue unaffected by the General's comments. Senior Executive Councillor Lady Dunn said it was inevitable the Prince of Wales Building would be handed over to the PLA because it was serving the same purpose for the British Garrison at present. She added that Hongkong people's fear towards the PLA had decreased because they were visiting China more often than before. Political commentator Lo Chi-kin said the General had inadvertently delivered a blow to the British negotiating position in the talks. ''It's embarrassing - letting the cat out of the bag won't make the British position any easier,'' he said. ''Most probably it's a position already taken by the British side that the Prince of Wales Building will be taken over by the PLA but the way the officials are trying to distance themselves from Foley's remarks suggests that they are trying to retain flexibility on the negotiations. ''It is little use now for the British team to try to use the building as a bargaining tool when Foley has said it will go to the Chinese anyway. ''Foley does not have authority on these matters and it is most unusual for a military person to discuss such a diplomatically sensitive issue.'' Mr Lo believed General Foley had been caught out but that his indiscretion could help to lift the cloak of secrecy surrounding the JLG talks. ''It's certainly a mistake and a careless statement from the British point of view,'' he said. ''But for Hongkong people who have been kept in the dark for too long, it could be good. ''The negotiations have to be between the two sovereign powers, but the talks are about Hongkong and we should know what's going on.''