US shoots down suspected China spy balloon

US shoots down suspected China spy balloon

The United States has shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off its eastern coast after the airship traversed North America.

TV footage showed a small explosion and the balloon descending towards the water as US military jets flew nearby and ships were stationed in the water.

An operation was launched in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 18,000 metres.

“We successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” President Joe Biden said.

China’s Foreign Ministry expressed strong dissatisfaction at the use of force to attack its airship on Sunday, describing it as a “serious violation of international practice”.

The balloon, the latest flashpoint in tensions between the US and China, was shot as it reached the east coast.

An F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia fired at 2.39pm local time using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior US military official said.

The balloon first entered US airspace over Alaska on January 28, before drifting over Canada and then back into the US, Pentagon officials said.

It flew over parts of the north-west that are home to sensitive airbases.

“We are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites,” a senior defence official said.

‘Unacceptable violation’

The US government ordered a halt to flights around the Carolinas coast due to what it called an undisclosed “national security effort”.

Officials tried to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sank into the ocean.

“On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as soon as possible,” Mr Biden said.

“They decided, without doing damage to anyone on the ground, that the best time to do that was when they got over water within our … 12-mile limit.”

The debris landed in 14m of water and is spread out over about 11km for a recovery operation the US expects to complete quickly, bringing in several ships including one salvage vessel.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin called the operation a “deliberate and lawful action” that answered China’s “unacceptable violation of our sovereignty”.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised the operation, tweeting: “Canada strongly supports this action — we’ll keep working together … on our security and defence.”

In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a crowd lining the boardwalk cheered as the balloon was hit.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.

China’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday said it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticised the US for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice”.

It had earlier called the flight over the US an accident.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a planned visit to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation.

“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit,” it said in a statement on Saturday morning.

China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected the suggestion.

The FAA has reopened the airspace off the coast of the Carolinas, after three south-eastern airports were temporarily shut.

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