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Chinese spies responsible for break-ins at African nuclear site: leaked documents

South African President Jacob Zuma is seen in this file photo. South Africa has denounced the leaking of its intelligence documents in the “spy cables” controversy, warning that the leak could inflict dangerous damage to its national security and its relations with other countries.

Chinese industrial spies were responsible for a series of mysterious break-ins by armed robbers at a South African nuclear research site, a leaked intelligence document says.

It is the latest revelation from hundreds of leaked "spy cables" obtained by Al Jazeera and released in daily batches this week. The new documents on Wednesday expose how Africa has become a happy hunting ground for Chinese and Russian spies seeking technological and geopolitical advantage.

The break-ins by unidentified gunmen took place in 2007 at South Africa's Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, where an innovative new form of nuclear energy was being developed. One nuclear employee was shot and nearly killed by the robbers as they scaled a wall and burst into a control room. At the time, officials dismissed the incidents as random crime, while some observers worried that it was part of a nuclear terrorism plot.

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But the secret report in 2009 by South African intelligence said the break-ins were engineered by Beijing "to advance China's rival project." By 2009, the Chinese pebble-bed nuclear project was ahead of South Africa's, even though it had begun much later, the report said.

A separate intelligence report, from 2012, revealed that Russia and South Africa were cooperating on a $100-million (U.S.) satellite project that could pave the way for "strategic cooperation" between the two countries. The report said Russian spy agencies, including its military intelligence agency, were heavily involved in the satellite project.

Russia could also cooperate with South Africa's state arms manufacturer to challenge the United States and France for arms-dealing supremacy in Africa, the report said.

South Africa, meanwhile, has denounced the leaking of its intelligence documents in the "spy cables" controversy, warning that the leak could inflict dangerous damage to its national security and its relations with other countries.

In its first reaction to the spy documents, the South African government promised a "full investigation" into the "purported leakage" of the "purported documents."

The spy documents obtained by Al Jazeera have caused a global uproar, revealing major leaks in intelligence reports from Israel, Iran, the United States, Britain, Canada and others. In one document, Israel's intelligence agency contradicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, implying that Mr. Netanyahu had exaggerated Iran's progress toward creating a nuclear bomb.

Other documents revealed that South Korea had asked for a spy report on the director of Greenpeace International, while other countries were asking for surveillance of dissidents or environmentalists.

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"The leaking of the purported documents detailing operational details of the State Security Agency is condemned in the strongest possible terms," said a statement on Wednesday by the South African state security minister, David Mahlobo.

It is "international practice" for countries to share intelligence on economic and security issues, Mr. Mahlobo said, apparently defending the fact that so many foreign spy documents were divulged in the South African leak.

He said it is "illegal" for such documents to be released without following "classification protocols." He added: "Such conduct has the dangerous effect of undermining operational effectiveness of the work to secure this country and borders on undermining diplomatic relations with our partners in the international community. Any leakages of classified information undermine the national security of any state."

While promising a full investigation, Mr. Mahlobo said the results of the investigation might itself be classified and kept secret.

At the same time, Mr. Mahlobo hinted that there might be unrelated "espionage activities" by some South African politicians and public officials. He said the government was concerned about "social media" reports – apparently a reference to rumours that some officials were secretly working for the CIA.

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