Mainland officials admitted yesterday that a satellite had been hijacked and used to broadcast Falun Gong propaganda, blaming the incident on overseas followers of the banned spiritual movement. Images and messages were beamed into millions of homes in remote parts of the country for up to a week. The interruptions - which were reported in the South China Morning Post on June 27 and July 3 - affected programmes broadcast from nine China Central Television channels and 10 provincial channels to 13,000 ground stations in Sichuan, Guizhou, Yunnan and other areas, officials said yesterday at a news conference. Liu Lihua, deputy director of the radio regulatory department of the Ministry of Information Industry, said the satellite in question was Sinosat, which carries programmes for viewers in remote areas covered by a government scheme to take TV signals to every village. Mr Liu said the government had used many technical methods to trace the source of the interference and blamed it on overseas followers of Falun Gong who had been 'manipulated and directed by the sect leader, Li Hongzhi'. Mr Li, who is wanted by Beijing, is currently living in exile in the US. At the time of the incident, TV screens went black while others flashed images lasting for 20 seconds of mass Falun Gong exercises by thousands of practitioners, interrupting normal viewing, including programmes celebrating the fifth anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China and World Cup matches. The illegal satellite signals, which lasted from several seconds to hours each day, continued from June 23 until June 30, officials said. Mr Liu declined to say which country the interference came from or the precise number of homes affected. Yesterday a US-based Falun Gong spokesperson denied any knowledge of such an effort by followers of the movement based overseas. The scale and hi-tech nature of the operation alarmed top leaders and an investigation was ordered by Vice-Premier Li Lanqing, who is responsible for the mainland's media sector. Officials were said to be at a loss to explain how the Falun Gong followers could have intercepted satellite TV signals. Some security sources said one possibility was that sect followers had installed equipment on a vehicle to avoid detection. But Du Baichuan, deputy chief engineer at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, said yesterday that while it was easier to tap into cable signals, interfering with satellites did not require a great deal of high technology. 'All you need is uploading equipment, which you can buy in the market, and the ability to analyse our signals. This could be done from the outside and does not require inside information,' he said. It was Falun Gong's most daring act of interference since it was banned on the mainland in 1999. On January 1, it penetrated a cable network in Chongqing and on March 3 hacked into a cable channel in Changchun, Jilin province, where Mr Li was born. Cheng Guangxin, president of Sino Satellite Telecommunications Company, the firm that operates the satellites, said that such a flagrant violation of international norms was rarely seen and had caused his company substantial losses, in repairing the fault and in damage to its reputation. 'The public did not know the truth and thought something was wrong with our company,' he said.