The US military on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast on orders from President Joe Biden after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America, becoming the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Mr Biden said he wanted the balloon downed on Wednesday, but was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water.
Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
The balloon was spotted on Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast.
At about 2.40pm EST (7.40pm GMT), an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about six nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, senior defense officials said.
The debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than they had expected. It was not immediately clear how long the recovery would take. The US Navy is taking the lead, supported by the Coast Guard.
“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Mr Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.
US defence and military officials said on Saturday that the balloon entered the US air defence zone north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday.
It crossed back into US territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Mr Biden was first briefed on it.
The balloon was spotted on Thursday over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The Americans were able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the US, giving them a number of days to analyse it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling, a senior defence official said. The official was not authorised to discuss the ongoing operation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
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 public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted the cancellation of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing US-China tensions.
The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation.
“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.
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 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 meteorology research.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasised that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the US not to “smear” it because of the balloon.
In preparation for the operation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including the airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina.
The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions. The FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the giant deflated balloon descending like a ribbon toward the water.
Bill Swanson said he watched the balloon deflate instantly from his house in Myrtle Beach as fighter jets circled around.
“When it deflated it was pretty close to instantaneous,” he said.
“One second it’s there like a tiny moon and the next second it’s gone.”
Mr Swanson added that a trail of smoke followed the balloon as it dropped.
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 any debris field would be substantial.