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U.S. Air Force jets shoot down giant Chinese balloon off U.S. east coast

China has reacted angrily after U.S. Air Force jets shot down a Chinese balloon on Saturday that the U.S. believes was on a mission to spy on U.S. military sites in the continental United States.

Three F22 jets from the air force base in Langley, Virginia chased down the balloon and shot it down with a single Sidewinder missile strike after it had crossed the coast of the state of South Carolina and was over the Atlantic Ocean over U.S. territorial waters. Three airports in South Carolina were closed down prior to the interception, in order to ensure that civilian aircraft were not endangered.

U.S. TV networks showed the downing live at 2:40 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time.

The balloon, which China says was a privately owned research project, but which the U.S. government believes was on a spying mission, was first spotted over the state of Montana last Wednesday, having drifted in from over Canada. President Joe Biden wanted it shot down immediately but Pentagon military commanders were cautious that debris from the balloon, which was as large as three school busses, would endanger people on the ground.

The debris landed off the resort town of Myrtle Beach in about 14m of water and defense officials are attempting to recover it.

The balloon caused a diplomatic incident with Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceling a long-awaited visit to China scheduled for Feb. 5-6. It had entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28 and flew over Alaska and Canada before reaching Montana and drifting across several states of the U.S.

China’s Foreign Ministry expressed “strong dissatisfaction and protest against the use of force to attack a civilian unmanned aircraft”.

Meanwhile, a second suspected Chinese balloon is being tracked over South America after it entered the airspace of Costa Rica, Venezuela and Colombia, the Colombian Air Force said.

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