Head of Belgian Foreign Affairs Committee says she was hacked by China

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Chinese spies hacked the laptop of Els Van Hoof, the chairperson of the Belgian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in federal Parliament, back in 2021, she told public broadcaster VRT on Thursday.

The case is the latest incident involving allegations of Chinese spying in Europe.

Disputes between Beijing and Western powers over espionage have been rising as Western intelligence agencies increasingly sound the alarm on Chinese state-backed hacking activity. Beijing has denied all such accusations.

Van Hoof found out about the cyber attack last month, three years after the incident had taken place, via a FBI report, she told VRT in an interview.

She said that 400 members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a British group with ties to an international network of politicians critical of China of which she is a member, had been targeted by the cyber attack.

"I have also opened those emails and that means I have become tracked in all my doings on a digital level," Van Hoof, a member of the Flemish Christian Democrat's, said. "That is a very uncomfortable feeling."

IPAC and Van Hoof did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reuters has asked Beijing for comment.

The impact of the cyber attack remains unclear. Belgian Newspaper Het Nieuwsblad reported that the whereabouts of the affected laptops had been tracked since 2021, citing the FBI report.

"I feel that I am actually working with my windows and doors open," Van Hoof told VRT. "The intention is obviously to intimidate you and make you shut up."

The alleged intimidation had been going on ever since she took up her current role, she told VRT.

Examples included intimidation letters from industry as well as the Chinese embassy and the cancellation of a committee hearing on the Uyghur ethnic minority due to a shutdown of the system, she added.

Belgian state security services had checked Van Hoof's laptop in September 2021 but did not find anything suspicious, she told VRT.

Earlier this week, an aide to a member of the European Parliament for the far-right Alternative for Germany was arrested in Germany on suspicion of "especially severe" espionage for China.

(Reporting by Nette Nöstlinger; Editing by Angus MacSwan)