The United States military has shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon which had been flying across the US for several days.
“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” President Joe Biden said on Saturday.
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Fighter jets shot down the balloon shortly after the US government ordered a halt to flights around the South Carolina coast due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort”.
An operation was under way in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 18,300 metres (60,000 ft), the Associated Press news agency reported.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending towards the water.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin first announced the shootdown, saying the balloon was being used by China “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States”.
The balloon became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing after its discovery earlier this week.
The US has called the balloon a “clear violation” of its sovereignty. China had expressed regret that an “airship” used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes had strayed into US airspace.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China that had been expected to start on Friday.
The postponement of Blinken’s trip, which had been agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilise an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a US secretary of state was in 2017.
Beijing has been eager for a stable Washington relationship so it could focus on its economy, battered by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy.
China on Saturday played down the cancellation of the Blinken visit, saying neither side had formally announced any such plan.
“In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The ministry again emphasised that the balloon’s journey was out of China’s control and urged the US not to “smear” it based on the balloon.
Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said China “has always strictly followed international law, we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype. Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences.”
The balloon was sighted over Montana on Wednesday and has travelled across the US. It was seen over North Carolina on Saturday morning, according to commercial forecaster AccuWeather which has been tracking it.
The Pentagon said on Friday that another Chinese balloon was observed over Latin America without saying where exactly.
“We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
A spy balloon is literally a gas-filled balloon that is flying quite high in the sky, more or less where commercial aeroplanes are flown.
A spy balloon generally has sophisticated cameras and imaging technology, and points all of those instruments down at the ground, collecting information through photography and other imaging of whatever is on the ground below it.