US china balloon
A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon sailed across the U.S. on Friday, drawing severe Pentagon accusations of spying and sending excited or alarmed Americans outside with binoculars. Image Credit: AP

Washington: A United States fighter aircraft on Saturday downed over US territorial waters a spy balloon that had spent days flying above the country, the Pentagon said.

"Today's deliberate and lawful action 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," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement.

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Biden congratulates US military

Biden congratulated the military for 'successfully' taking down the balloon. He added that the Pentagon had advised that the shooting be done over water, and that he had approved the downing of the 'balloon' on Wednesday.

They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it

- US President Joe Biden

China insisted the balloon is just an errant civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research that went off course due to winds and has only limited “self-steering” capabilities.

China expresses 'strong dissatisfaction'

Beijing on Sunday blasted the Pentagon's decision to shoot down the spy balloon spotted flying over North America, accusing the United States of "clearly overreacting and seriously violating international practice".

"China expresses strong dissatisfaction and protests against the use of force by the United States to attack the unmanned civilian airship," Beijing's foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that it would "reserve the right to make further necessary responses".

Search for debris underway

One US military official said the debris field was spread out over seven miles of ocean, and multiple US military vessels were already on site. The officials estimated the recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks. A salvage vessel was en route.

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, according to two senior defense officials said. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

The downing of the balloon came shortly after the US government ordered a halt to flights in and out of three airports in South Carolina -- Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston -- due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed "national security effort." Flights resumed on Saturday afternoon.

Officials warn not to touch balloon debris

Authorities in the Myrtle Beach area are advising residents not to touch debris if it washes up on shore and to contact police dispatch if they see any.

"Debris should not be touched, moved, or removed," the Horry County Police Department said on social media.

The North Myrtle Beach Police Department also advised residents to contact law enforcement if they see any "stray pieces" of the balloon wash ashore.