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Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni holds a press conference with his counterpart from Britain Theresa May (not shown) at Number 10 Downing Street in London, February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Facundo Arrizabalaga/Pool -


ROME (Reuters) - Italy's foreign ministry was hacked last year, a source close to the department said on Friday, confirming a report in the Guardian newspaper which also said Russia was suspected of perpetrating the attack.

Last spring, hackers got into data systems at the ministry, which was then headed by now-Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. The attacks carried on for more than four months but did not gain access to classified information, the paper said.

The source said security had since been stepped up.

"These were not attacks on the encrypted computer system which carries the most important and sensitive information, but the email system for staff at the foreign ministry and embassies," the source said.

According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, two people with knowledge of the attack said the Russian state was believed to have been behind it. The source close to the ministry could not confirm this.

Cyber crime against governments has come into sharp focus since United States intelligence agencies accused Russia of interfering in last year's U.S. election.

The Czech Republic said last week its foreign ministry had come under a sophisticated attack, which a government source said was suspected to have come from Russia.

In the Czech case, Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek's email account was hacked. The Guardian said that Italy's Gentiloni, who took over as premier in December, was not hit.

Gentiloni avoided using email when he was foreign minister, the paper said.

The Russian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. The Kremlin has described allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election as "fabricated" and "a witch hunt", and denied interfering to sway the U.S. election outcome or weaken the European Union.

An Italian government source told Reuters this year that the foreign ministry had been hacked in the past and that Rome suspected the perpetrators were Russian, but that it was impossible to say with certainty where such attacks came from.

Last month, an Italian brother and sister were arrested on suspicion of hacking into the emails of European Central Bank President Mario Draghi and thousands of others. The police chief who conducted the investigation said there was no evidence they had acted on behalf of foreign states.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli in Rome and Alex Winning in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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