The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina. Reuters
A US military fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, a week after it first entered US airspace and triggered a dramatic — and public — spying saga.
The Biden administration lauded the Pentagon for shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon off the US Atlantic coast, but China angrily voiced its "strong dissatisfaction" at the move and said it may make "necessary responses."
President Joe Biden said he had issued an order on Wednesday to take down the balloon, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to safeguard civilians from debris crashing to Earth from thousands of feet (meters) above commercial air traffic.
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"They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," Biden said.
The craft spent several days flying over North America before it was targeted off the coast of the southeastern state of South Carolina with a missile fired from an F-22 plane, Pentagon officials said, falling into relatively shallow water just 47 feet (14 meters) deep.
A Raytheon-built AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air. File/AP
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin called the operation a "deliberate and lawful action" that came in response to China's "unacceptable violation of our sovereignty."
But China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs blasted the US action in a statement Sunday morning, saying the downing of the "civilian" aircraft was "clearly overreacting and seriously violating international practice."
Joe Biden speaks to the press after arriving at Hagerstown Regional Airport in Hagerstown, Maryland. AFP
Multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one — an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia — took the shot at 2:39 p.m. (1939 GMT), using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior US military official said.
China strongly condemned the military strike on an airship that it says was used for meteorological and other scientific purposes, and which it said had strayed into US airspace "completely accidentally" — claims flatly dismissed by US officials.
"China had clearly asked the US to handle this properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner," China's foreign ministry said in a statement. "The US had insisted on using force, obviously overreacting."
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks in Washington, DC, on Friday. AFP
The balloon was shot down about six nautical miles off the US coast of the Atlantic Ocean, over relatively shallow water, potentially aiding efforts to recover elements of the Chinese surveillance equipment over the coming days, US officials said.
One US military official said the debris field was spread out over seven miles (11 km) of ocean, and multiple US military vessels were on site.
The controversy erupted Thursday, when American officials said they were tracking a large Chinese "surveillance balloon" in US skies.
That led Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday to scrap a rare trip to Beijing designed to contain rising US-China tensions.
A large balloon drifts above the Kingstown, N.C. area, with an airplane and its contrail seen below it. AP
After initial hesitation, Beijing admitted ownership of the "airship," but said it was a civilian weather balloon that had been blown off course and that it "regrets" the episode.
But after Saturday's operation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed China's "strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship."
The last of the debris from the Chinese balloon, which was downed by a Sidewinder missile, is heading to an FBI laboratory in Virginia for analysis, the US military's Northern Command said in a statement.
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