A United Arab Emirates senior diplomat denied Thursday the country had targeted "friendly countries" or American citizens in a cyberspying program that a Reuters report said involved a hacking team of U.S. mercenaries.

The Reuters investigation published Wednesday found that the UAE used a group of American intelligence contractors to help hack rival governments, dissidents and human rights activists. The contractors, former U.S. intelligence operatives, formed a core part of UAE’s cyber hacking program called Project Raven.

Project Raven also targeted Americans, and the Apple Inc iPhones of embassy staff for France, Australia and the United Kingdom, according to former operatives and program documents reviewed by Reuters.

Apple has declined to comment and did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

When asked about Project Raven by reporters at a briefing in New York, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash acknowledged the country has a "cyber capability," but denied targeting U.S. citizens or countries with which it has good relations.

"We live in a very difficult part of the world. We have to protect ourselves," Gargash said. "We don’t target friendly countries and we don’t target American citizens."

The French and U.K. embassies in Washington have declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Australian ministry of foreign affairs has declined to comment. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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