Watch: Chinese spy balloon shot down off US coast

The suspected Chinese spy balloon has been shot down off the Carolina coast - Chad Fish
The suspected Chinese spy balloon has been shot down off the Carolina coast - Chad Fish

The United States on Saturday shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the east coast of America, three days after it was first spotted floating over sensitive nuclear military bases.

The swift operation by the US Air Force saw a F22 fighter jet fire an AIM-9X missile through the helium balloon, deflating it, and sending the payload plummeting towards the Atlantic Ocean.

An operation was under way in US territorial waters to recover debris from the balloon - expected to include instruments and sensors.

Whatever is recovered will be taken to an FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, officials said.

The presence of the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and is estimated to be about the size of three buses, was first made public on Thursday when it was over US nuclear sites in Montana.

China's foreign ministry on Sunday condemned the military strike on a craft that it says was used for meteorological and other scientific purposes, and which it said had strayed into US airspace "completely accidentally" - claims flatly dismissed by US officials.

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

"China had clearly asked the US to handle this properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner ... the US had insisted on using force, obviously overreacting," the ministry said.

"China will resolutely uphold the relevant [balloon owner] company's legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response."

On Saturday, President Joe Biden revealed he had asked the military to shoot the balloon down a day earlier, but was told that the potential for harm to people on the ground was too high.

“On Wednesday when I was briefed on the balloon, I ordered the Pentagon to shoot it down ... as soon as possible without doing damage to anyone on the ground,'' he said.

“They decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water within our 12-mile limit. They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Mr Biden added.

A second mystery 'surveillance device' has been spotted over South America - Twitter/ @el_charlie/Twitter/ @el_charlie
A second mystery 'surveillance device' has been spotted over South America - Twitter/ @el_charlie/Twitter/ @el_charlie

Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon and its payload descending toward the water, where recovery teams were ready and waiting.

Earlier in the day, China had urged the US to keep “cool-headed” even as a second such balloon was spotted floating above Venezuela and Colombia.

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 diplomatic incident has turned into a flashpoint between Washington and Beijing, causing US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to cancel a long-planned official trip to the Chinese capital.

Mr Blinken described the incursion of the “surveillance asset” as “unacceptable” and “an irresponsible act”.