China says alleged spy balloon spotted in US is civilian weather airship

(Update 3: Adds statement from China)

Beijing/Washington/Toronto, Feb 3 (EFE).- China on Friday said an alleged spy balloon being tracked over the United States was a civilian research airship that had blown off course.

Beijing had earlier urged calm and warned against speculation after the US and Canada said they were tracking the high altitude object.

“Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into the US airspace due to force majeure,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said.

The ministry added in a statement that the airship was a civilian device used for meteorological research purposes.

Late on Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryder said in a statement that “the United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now” and that senior officials had decided against shooting it down.

Canada was also actively tracking the balloon and “taking steps to ensure the security of its airspace, including the monitoring of a potential second incident,” its Department of National Defense later said in a statement, but did not elaborate on what the second incident might be.

On Friday afternoon in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular press briefing that China was verifying the reports, but that it had no intention of violating the territory and airspace of a sovereign state and hoped to handle the matter calmly and prudently with the US, according to state news outlet CGTN.

The balloon was flying at an altitude well above commercial air traffic, Ryder said, and does not pose a threat to civil aviation. On Wednesday it was seen over the northwestern state of Montana.

When the object was detected, the US government “acted immediately” to protect itself against the collection of sensitive information by China, he said, noting that this is not the first time that the authorities have detected such a balloon.

A high-ranking US defense official said in the same statement that the country’s intelligence community has “very high confidence” the balloon belongs to China and that they have engaged with Chinese officials on the matter.

“We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue,” the official said. “We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland.”

Senior defense officials recommended against shooting the object down due to risk to people on the ground and the relatively low risk to security it poses.

“Currently, we assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collective collection perspective,” the official added. “We did assess that it was large enough to cause damage from the debris field if we downed it over an area (…) I can’t really go into the dimension – but there have been reports of pilots seeing this thing, even though it’s pretty high up in the sky. So … it’s sizable.”

President Joe Biden had been informed of the matter.

Canada’s intelligence agencies were working with the US and taking “all necessary measures to safeguard Canada’s sensitive information from foreign intelligence threats,” it said.

The announcement comes ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day visit to China on Sunday, the first trip by a US foreign minister to the country since 2018. EFE


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