May 20. 2024. 11:14

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US planning to shoot down Chinese balloon over Atlantic, say officials

The Biden administration is moving forward with a plan to shoot down a large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance on the US military by bringing it down once it is above the Atlantic Ocean, where the remnants could potentially be recovered, according to two US officials.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation, said US president Joe Biden had given the go-ahead.

In a brief remark on Saturday in response to a reporter’s question about the balloon, Mr Biden said: “We’re going to take care of it.”

The balloon was spotted on Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast.

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US and China: Fragile relationship blown off course by a balloon over Montana

US and China: Fragile relationship blown off course by a balloon over Montana

In preparation for the operation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, until at least 2.45pm EST (7.45pm Irish time) on Saturday.

The FAA was rerouting air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions.

The Coast Guard also advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of US military operations “that present a significant hazard”.

Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean.

The Pentagon had previously estimated that the balloon, flying at about 60,000ft in the air, was about the size of three school buses and that any debris field would be substantial.

Mr Biden had been inclined to down the balloon over land when he was first briefed on it on Tuesday, but Pentagon officials advised against it, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.

The public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted cancellation of a visit by US secretary of state Antony Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday to allow talks aimed at reducing US-China tensions.

The Chinese government sought to play down the cancellation 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 has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorological research.

China had earlier called for calm amid the growing diplomatic row with the US.

Republican party members claimed the administration of President Joe Biden is not doing enough to deter its adversaries, while China called for “cool-headed” handling of the dispute.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday that Beijing “never violated the territory and airspace of any sovereign country”.

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The ministry said China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, had spoken with Mr Blinken in a phone conversation and emphasised the importance of maintaining communications. “Especially in dealing with some unexpected situations in a calm and reliable manner,” it added.

Beijing “would not accept any groundless conjecture or hype”, it added, accusing some US politicians and media of using the incident “as a pretext to attack and smear China”.

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.

Asked whether the balloon should be shot down, Mr Pompeo told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “Shutdown by whatever means is most likely to achieve a couple of goals. One, to let the Chinese Communist party know that we’re serious. Two, to find out what it is that they’re collecting … and finally to do so in a way that is safe for everyone on the ground.”

He added: “We should defeat this Chinese spying effort. We can do it, it’s not that complicated. Pull it off, pull it down and let the Chinese Communist Party know that they’re not going to walk all over us.”

Police in North Carolina warned people not to take “pot shots” at the balloon, as it was predicted to cross the area on Saturday. And police in Gastonia city in the state asked people not to call them with sightings, saying they “don’t have the capability to respond to an altitude of 60k feet to check it out”. – additional reporting: Guardian/AP