London CNN Business  — 

The battle between Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and a top British tabloid is heating up.

Meghan’s legal team has filed an application seeking to prevent Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Mail on Sunday, from publicly naming five friends who anonymously defended her against bullying in a US publication over a year ago, a source close to the Duchess told CNN.

The names of the women were contained in a confidential filing provided to the judge and the defense in a lawsuit Meghan filed against the publisher after the Mail on Sunday printed excerpts of a letter the Duchess wrote to her father following her marriage to Prince Harry, the source said.

“We vehemently believe that the Mail’s threat to publish has nothing to do with the case, and is only being done so the Mail can target five innocent women through the pages of its newspapers and its website,” the source said.

A spokesman for the newspaper said in response: “To set the record straight, The Mail on Sunday had absolutely no intention of publishing the identities of the five friends this weekend. But their evidence is at the heart of the case and we see no reason why their identities should be kept secret. That is why we told the Duchess’s lawyers last week that the question of their confidentiality should be properly considered by the court.”

CNN has learned the women spoke to People magazine, which published an exclusive cover story on the backlash against the Duchess in February 2019. The article, ‘Meghan Markle’s Best Friends Break Their Silence: ‘We Want to Speak the Truth,’ quotes five women from her “inner circle.”

The source close to the Duchess said Associated Newspapers is attempting to “intimidate” her and her friends before the case is heard at London’s high court, when the women could be called as witnesses. Prince Harry and Meghan previously accused the Mail on Sunday of selectively editing the letter to disguise “lies” the paper had told about the Duchess — a claim that the tabloid specifically denies.

The Mail on Sunday and Associated Newspapers previously ​said they stand by the decision to publish excerpts from the letter and will defend the case vigorously. The company will argue that there was “huge and legitimate” public interest in members of the royal family and their “personal relationships.”

As part of the court filing on Thursday, provided to CNN by the source, the Duchess of Sussex said in a witness statement:

“Associated Newspapers, the owner of The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, is threatening to publish the names of five women — five private citizens — who made a choice on their own to speak anonymously with a US media outlet more than a year ago, to defend me from the bullying behaviour of Britain’s tabloid media.”

“These five women are not on trial, and nor am I. The publisher of the Mail on Sunday is the one on trial. It is this publisher that acted unlawfully and is attempting to evade accountability; to create a circus and distract from the point of this case — that the Mail on Sunday unlawfully published my private letter.”

“Each of these women is a private citizen, young mother, and each has a basic right to privacy,” she added. “The Mail on Sunday is playing a media game with real lives.”