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US shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon over east coast

A US warplane has shot down a Chinese high-altitude balloon over the Atlantic Ocean after it had crossed the entire US and caused a diplomatic rift between the two countries.

The balloon, which China said is for meteorological purposes but the US insists has been spying, could be seen on television collapsing and falling from the sky. A senior military official told reporters the balloon had been downed by a single missile fired from a F-22 Raptor fighter jet that took off from Langley air force base in Virginia.

“On Wednesday, when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down on Wednesday as soon as possible, without doing damage to anyone on the ground,” Joe Biden told reporters. “They decided that the best time to do that was over water within our within 12-mile limit. They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it.”

An aviation exclusion area was declared off the South Carolina coast before fighter jets were launched, and a salvage operation by Navy and Coast Guard vessels was reported to be under way to recover fragments of the destroyed balloon over a 7-mile field of debris. Aviation Week quoted a senior military official as saying the debris was in 47-foot deep water, and so would be relatively easy to salvage.

A military official told reporters that US Navy divers and unmanned diving vessels would be sent down to raise the remnants of the balloon and its payload to the surface.

“The balloon, which was being used by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above US territorial waters,” the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, said.

“On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorisation to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”

“After careful analysis, US military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon, and its surveillance payload,” Austin said.

“Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first, while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.”

The balloon was launched in China and reached the US Aleutian Islands off Alaska on 28 January, arriving in Canada two days later.

China had expressed regret for the overflight, claiming it was a weather balloon that had been blown off course, but the Pentagon rejected the claim, insisting that it was a surveillance aircraft able to manoeuvre. One of the states it flew over was Montana, which is home to some of the US arsenal of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The incursion led the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to cancel a planned visit this weekend to Beijing, where he had been due to meet President Xi Jinping to discuss tensions between the two countries.

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