The United States has shot down what it has insisted was a Chinese surveillance balloon that has been flying over the country for the last several days.
US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin said fighters had brought down the balloon over the country’s territorial waters in the Atlantic.
US president Joe Biden said on Saturday he had told his military commanders last Wednesday to destroy the balloon.
Military chiefs had recommended that the balloon should not be shot down over land given the risk posed to people and property on the ground.
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The balloon was eventually brought down off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday afternoon, local time.
US military forces are in place to try to retrieve parts of the structure that survive the fall into the ocean.
The Chinese government had maintained the balloon was a civilian airship used primarily for weather research which had drifted off course.
Mr Biden’s opposition Republican critics had sought to portray the president as being weak on the issue as the Chinese balloon crossed the country.
On Friday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken at the last minute postponed a planned visit to Beijing amid the political storm caused by the balloon.
He said the incursion of the balloon represented a violation of US sovereignty and was unacceptable.
The balloon, described as being the size of two to three single-deck buses, also contained a gantry of solar panels and possibly surveillance equipment.
The balloon, which spent five days traveling in a diagonal southeast route from Idaho to the Carolinas, had moved off the coast by midday Saturday and was over the Atlantic Ocean.
The Federal Aviation Administration in the United States on Saturday paused departures and arrivals at airports in Wilmington North Carolina as well as in Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina. The agency said the move was meant to “support the Department of Defense in a national security effort”.
After the shooting, the balloon could be seen on television collapsing and falling from the sky.
US officials told US reporters the balloon had been shot down within the 12-mile limit of US territorial waters.
The Chinese government had sought to play down the cancellation of Mr Blinken’s visit earlier on Saturday. “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,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs 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 that out of hand – as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America.
“We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig Gen Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
Mr Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late on Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call 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”.
China had earlier called for calm amid the growing diplomatic row with the US.
Republican party members claimed the administration of President Joe Biden was not doing enough to deter its adversaries, while China called for “cool-headed” handling of the dispute.
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Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state under Donald Trump and former CIA director, said earlier on Saturday that Mr Blinken’s cancellation of his planned trip to Beijing was “not remotely enough” of a response, describing the incident as an “intentional incursion” into US airspace. – additional reporting: Guardian/AP