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BEIJING — An influential state-run newspaper applauded China's anti-espionage efforts on Monday after the New York Times reported Beijing had killed or imprisoned up to 20 CIA sources, hobbling U.S. spying operations.
The Chinese killed at least a dozen people providing information to the Central Intelligence Agency between 2010 and 2012, dismantling a network that was years in the making, the New York Times reported. The paper cited two senior former U.S. officials. NBC News was not immediately able to independently verify the report.
China's Global Times, which is published by the official People's Daily, said in an editorial in its Chinese and English-language editions that, if true, it was a triumph for China.
"If this article is telling the truth, we would like to applaud China's anti-espionage activities. Not only was the CIA's spy network dismantled, but Washington had no idea what happened and which part of the spy network had gone wrong," the paper said. "It can be taken as a sweeping victory. Perhaps it means even if the CIA makes efforts to rebuild its spy network in China, it could face the same result."
However the widely read paper, which is known for its strongly nationalist stance, said one part of the report was false.
"As for one source being shot in a government courtyard, that is a purely fabricated story, most likely a piece of American-style imagination based on ideology," it said.
"Strike hard against spy traitors, protect the country's security!"
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's foreign affairs ministry, said she was "not aware of" the situation described in the Times' report.
She added: "I can tell you that the China national security authorities are following [their] legal mandate to carry out investigations into organizations' personnel and actions that harm China's national security and interests."
While the New York Times' website is blocked in China, like those of many mainstream Western news organizations, the story has been widely discussed and its contents picked up in other Chinese media, especially by online news portals.
The story has attracted thousands of comments on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, with many people expressing glee that the spy ring was allegedly broken.
"Strike hard against spy traitors, protect the country's security!" wrote one Weibo user.
"Well done! Good on you China," wrote another.
The CIA and FBI both declined comment to the New York Times.