US officials have insisted it is without a doubt Chinese spy balloon, ITV News US Correspondent Dan Rivers reports
By Multimedia Producer Lottie Kilraine
The US has shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast, after it became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
An operation is underway in US territorial waters to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and estimated to be about the size of three school buses.
Before the downing, President Joe Biden had said earlier on Saturday: “We’re going to take care of it,” when asked by reporters about the balloon.
The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard is working to clear the airspace and water below.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water.
US military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.
Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean.
President Biden said on Saturday that he had ordered US officials to shoot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier in the week and that national security leaders had decided the best time for the operation was when the it got over water.
“They successfully took it down and I want to complement our aviators who did it," Biden added.
China has claimed the balloon is a civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that went off course due to winds and has only limited “self-steering” capabilities.
However, US officials have insisted it is without a doubt Chinese spy balloon.
The Pentagon says the balloon, which was carrying sensors and surveillance equipment, is manoeuvrable and has shown it can change course.
It had loitered over sensitive areas of Montana where nuclear warheads are siloed, leading the military to take actions to prevent it from collecting intelligence.
Montana is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
In a brief remark Saturday in response to a reporter’s question about the balloon, Biden said: “We’re going to take care of it.”
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast.
Pentagon officials had previously advised against shooting down the balloon, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.
The presence of the balloon has already caused a rift between the two governments and prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a weekend trip to China.
Mr Blinken said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call on Friday that sending the balloon over the US was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
The Chinese government sought to play down the cancellation on Saturday saying the trip had never been offically announced.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying: “In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that."
The Pentagon has also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America.
Pentagon press secretary, Pat Ryder confirmed in a statement: “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon."
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
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