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LONDON: The British government said Tuesday it could not rule out state involvement in a mass cyberattack on the personal details of armed forces personnel that some lawmakers blamed on Beijing.

China furiously denied that it was behind the hack on a contractor’s payroll system used by the defence ministry that contained the names, banking details and addresses of tens of thousands of serving and veteran British soldiers.

“We do have indications that this was the suspected work of a malign actor and we cannot rule out state involvement,” Defence Secretary Grant Shapps told parliament.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had earlier said there were indications that a “malign actor has compromised the armed forces payment network” but stopped short of naming China.

MP and former minister Tobias Ellwood said it had the hallmarks of a Chinese operation.

“Targeting the names of the payroll system and service personnel’s bank details — this does point to China because it can be as part of a plan, a strategy to see who might be coerced,” the ex-soldier and former chairman of a parliamentary defence committee, told BBC radio.

But during his update to parliamentarians on the data breach, Shapps would not be drawn on whether China was responsible.

“This incident is further proof that the UK is facing rising and evolving threats,” he said. Shapps said up to 272,000 serving personnel might have been affected, including some recently retired veterans. He added that initial investigations had found “no evidence that any data has been removed,” and said the government had taken “immediate action” to protect those targeted, including taking the system offline. “I want to apologise to the men and women who are affected by this. It should not have happened,” he told the House of Commons. Cabinet minister Mel Stride told Sky News television, which first reported the breach, the government was not currently pointing the finger at Beijing.

“That is an assumption... We are not saying that at this precise moment,” he said.

But he said that the government viewed Beijing’s government as an “epoch-defining challenge. Our eyes are wide open when it comes to China.”

Sunak, speaking on a visit to southeast London, added that the government had set out a “robust policy” towards China, which was becoming increasingly “authoritarian” at home and “more assertive” abroad.

Beijing hit back quickly at the claims from Ellwood, a China hawk who has publicly criticised Beijing’s crackdown on rights in Hong Kong. “The remarks by relevant British politicians are utter nonsense,” foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian said.

“China has always firmly opposed and cracked down on all types of cyberattacks.”

The UK and the United States in March accused China of a global campaign of “malicious” cyberattacks in an unprecedented joint operation.

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