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US shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon; mission on to recover debris

US President Joe Biden lauds aviators who knocked down the balloon

USA-CHINA/SPY The suspected Chinese spy balloon drifts to the ocean after being shot down off the coast in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, U.S | Reuters

The US has downed the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon  over the Atlantic Ocean, days after it was spotted hovering over the sensitive sites of the country from Montana to South Carolina.

The US military used fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to take down the suspected Chinese spy balloon at 2:39 p.m. ET Saturday (IST 1:09 am Sunday), CNN quoted a senior US military official. The US military used F-22 aircrafts and fired an AIM-9X missile to shoot down the object.

President Joe Biden confirmed downing the suspected Chinese spy balloon, stating the mission was successful and he had ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down as soon as it was safe to do so. 

"On Wednesday when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down — on Wednesday — as soon as possible," the president told reporters in Maryland. "They decided, without doing damage to anyone on the ground, they decided that the best time to do that was as it got over water ... within a 12-mile limit. They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," the President added. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said knocking down the balloon "demonstrates that President (Joe) 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."

A video showing a small explosion and the balloon descending towards the water did rounds on local media.

Meanwhile, the US has deployed multiple Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the area to recover as much of the debris as possible. They have reportedly secured a perimeter and instructed people to not touch or remove any debris of the balloon.

Besides divers, unmanned vessels that can go down to get the structure and lift it back up on the recovery ship are also being used. The FBI officials are also on board as well, other counterintelligence authorities to be categorising and assessing the platform itself. The remains will be taken to an FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, for analysis by FBI experts and intelligence agencies.

"That recovery is under way. How long it will take is still to-be-determined," a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters, adding the debris was in relatively shallow waters. He added that he anticipated the recovery would not take weeks or months, and would instead move relatively quickly. 

It was on Thursday that the Pentagon announced it has been tracking the suspected spy balloon over the US airspace for some time.  It entered Alaska on January 28 before moving to the Canadian airspace on January 30. The balloon reportedly re-entered the US airspace over Northern Idaho on January 31.

The Pentagon estimated with confidence that the balloon belonged to China. "We assessed that it did not pose a threat at any time to civilian air traffic and because of the altitude of the balloons. We also assess it did not pose military or kinetic threat to US people or property on the ground," the official added.

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