Feb. 4 (UPI) — The United States on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the North Carolina coast, ending a diplomatic crisis that had lasted several days.
The U.S. military destroyed the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean, official sources confirmed to CNN and NBC News reported.
Before the balloon was downed, the Federal Aviation Administration paused departures and arrivals around midday at airports in Wilmington, N.C., and in Myrtle Beach and Charleston in South Carolina.
An operation is reportedly underway now to collect the debris, according to the reports.
The balloon incident had caused U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a planned trip to Beijing.
China has repeatedly downplayed the incident, saying that it was not a spy balloon.
A spokesperson for the China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated its contention on Saturday, claiming the balloon is a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes” and adding, “we have no intention to violate and has never violated the territory or airspace of any sovereign country.”
The Chinese official also said Blinken’s planned visit was never actually announced.
“In fact, neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit,” the spokesperson said, adding it is the role of diplomats on both sides to deal with “unexpected situations in a cool-headed and prudent manner.”
Beijing asserted the balloon incident has been hyped up by media and politicians in the United States.
The Pentagon confirmed Thursday that the U.S. military has been tracking the “high altitude surveillance balloon” flying over the continental United States.
It was first seen flying over Billings, Mont., Wednesday, and by Saturday was seen over North Carolina. Despite speculation that it is a spy balloon, a senior U.S. defense official said it has limited intelligence collection value.
According to the Pentagon, the balloon does not pose a military or physical threat and is flying well above commercial air traffic.
The South China Morning Post reported Saturday that Blinken would likely visit China once fallout from the balloon incident dies down.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher at the Beijing-based Yuan Wang military technology and science think tank, told the newspaper the controversy was just “a small accident taking place in a sensitive time.”
“Beijing is understanding of the postponement,” he said.