HAGERSTOWN: US military fighter aircraft shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, drawing to a close a dramatic saga that drew a spotlight on worsening Sino-U.S. relations.
“We successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” President Joe Biden said.
The shootdown came shortly after the U.S. 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.”
Washington has called the balloon a “clear violation” of U.S. sovereignty.
Defense Secretary 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.”
Biden on Saturday said he told the Pentagon on Wednesday to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon as soon as possible.
A Reuters photographer who witnessed the shootdown said a stream came from a jet and hit the balloon, but there was no explosion. It then began to fall, the photographer said.
Military leaders earlier this week had recommended against shooting down the balloon when it was over Montana due to the risk of falling debris, officials said.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), following the downing of the balloon, said that arrival and departure flights from three South Carolina airports — Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston — were resuming, after having been paused earlier in the day because of a “national security effort.”
The FAA had issued a temporary flight restriction to clear airspace around the South Carolina coast. The notice blocked flights to more than 100 square miles (260 square kilometers) — mostly over the Atlantic Ocean, according to a document posted by the FAA. The notice warned the military could use deadly force if airplanes violate the restrictions and do not comply with orders to leave.
The Reuters photographer in the Myrtle Beach area could see the suspected spy balloon overhead, with two U.S. military jets flying alongside it.
China expressed regret that an “airship” used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes had strayed into U.S. airspace.
China’s foreign ministry said on Saturday that the flight of the “airship” over the United States was a force majeure accident, and accused U.S. politicians and media of taking advantage of the situation to discredit Beijing.
The suspected Chinese spy balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to China this week 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 stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship between the two countries.
China is keen for a stable U.S. relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and neglected by foreign investors alarmed by what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.
The Pentagon said on Friday that another Chinese balloon was observed over Latin America, without saying where exactly.