The United States on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
An operation was underway in U.S. territorial waters to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and estimated to be about the size of three school buses.
President Joe Biden approved the downing of the Chinese balloon, the same US official told CNN. Another US official said that Biden approved the plan, which was presented and supported by US military leaders.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III released this statement after the balloon was shot down: "This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People's Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace. The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above U.S. territorial waters. On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon's path."
WATCH | Balloon believed to be from China flies over Charlotte hours before being shot down
U.S. officials say a massive surveillance balloon believed to be from China and first seen above Montana earlier this week is being tracked as it flies over the continental United States.
Friday, officials projected it was headed towards North Carolina.
Saturday morning our ABC Affiliate partner WSOC said there are reports of it being seen in Western North Carolina in the mountain area and making its way toward Charlotte.
FAA issues air space closure for parts of Carolinas
The Federal Aviation Administration has closed airspace in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina. All operations at Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Wilmington airports have been paused for national security initiatives.
The alerts are in effect until 2:45 p.m.
President Joe Biden on Saturday made his first public comments on the Chinese surveillance balloon flying over the continental U.S.
Biden, who is traveling to New York, was asked by a reporter if there were plans to shoot the balloon down.
"We're going to take care of it," he responded.
China's foreign ministry has claimed it is a civilian balloon used for meteorological purposes, but U.S. politicians, many on the right, are already demanding President Joe Biden shoot it down.
The current thinking is to wait until it is over the Atlantic Ocean to then try to shoot it down and retrieve it, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the situation. A substantial localized airspace shutdown will likely be required in order to protect civilians while the U.S. tries to down the balloon, which is likely being navigated via Chinese spy satellites, the official said.
Also on Friday, the Pentagon is now confirming that there is a second Chinese surveillance balloon flying over South America. There were reports earlier Friday of a balloon flying over Colombia and Venezuela, but there was no information until now.
WATCH | Duke professor explains concerns around large balloon flying over US believed to be from China
The Chinese Foreign Ministry posted a new statement in a form of a Q&A on their website early Saturday and slammed those taking advantage of the massive surveillance balloon.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his upcoming trip to China, but the ministry claimed the visit had never been announced.
"As a matter of fact, neither China nor the US has announced any visits. It is the US's own business to release relevant information, and we respect that," the statement read.
They also reiterated their denial that the surveillance balloon was being used to spy on the U.S., insisting that China has always abided by international law and that the balloon deviated from its scheduled route.
"This was completely an accident caused by force majeure, and the facts are very clear," the statement continued.
The United States, elected officials and the media were also accused by the ministry of taking advantage of the incident.