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Suspected Chinese 'spy balloon' shot down by US fighter jet over sea

A US fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon on 4 February. It had been flying across the US, including over sensitive military bases.

The incident has raised international tensions, leading US secretary of state Antony Blinken to postpone a planned visit to China.

The balloon entered Alaskan airspace on 28 January and flew south over Canada before returning to US airspace over Idaho on 31 January.

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The US claims the balloon was on an intelligence-gathering mission, travelling over a number of sensitive military sites including missile silos. China claims the balloon was for meteorological observation and had simply blown off course.

US officials say similar balloons flew over the US at least three times during Donald Trump’s presidency and once earlier in Joe Biden’s, but this flight was the longest in duration and it is the first time details have been made public.

They also say that similar balloons have been spotted over countries in Asia and Europe, while another is passing over Central and South America – recent sightings of it have been made over Costa Rica and Venezuela.

Biden gave orders on Wednesday 1 February for the military to shoot down the balloon, but it was several days before it could be brought down without risk to civilians.

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The balloon was eventually destroyed by a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia just off the coast of South Carolina. The aircraft fired a single AIM-9X missile from an altitude of nearly 18,000 metres (58,000 feet) at the balloon, which had been travelling at a height of 18,000 to 19,800 metres.

“Shooting the balloon down addressed the surveillance threat posed to military installations and further neutralised any intelligence value it could have produced, preventing it from returning to the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” said an unnamed senior defence official on 4 February. “In addition, shooting the balloon down could enable the US to recover sensitive PRC equipment.”

Teams from the US Navy and FBI are now working to recover the wreckage, which came down in water only 15 metres deep, but spread out across an area spanning 11 kilometres.

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