(NewsNation) — The United States has downed a Chinese balloon off the Carolina coast, and now an operation is underway to recover debris from it in the Atlantic Ocean.
China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions.
The balloon, which the Pentagon said was being used by China for surveillance, was shot down by a U.S. aircraft at around 2:05 p.m. EST, a military intelligence source told NewsNation.
China responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the U.S. for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”
In its statement, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed in a statement Saturday afternoon that it was a U.S. fighter aircraft that had taken the balloon down. It had been flying at about 60,000 feet.
Television footage showed a small explosion, and then the balloon falling toward the water, with U.S. military jets flying in the vicinity. Ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation, the AP said.
Earlier Saturday, the U.S. temporarily restricted airspace over the area to prepare.
On Twitter, the Federal Aviation Administration said it paused departures and arrivals to Wilmington, Myrtle Beach International and Charleston International airports “to support the Department of Defense in a national security effort.”
The FAA, warning of delays because of the flight restrictions, rerouted air traffic from the area.
President Joe Biden said earlier Saturday that officials were “going to take care” of the balloon that had been floating above the U.S. for days.
The balloon had drifted over the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s mainland, then over Canada, before going back over the United States again.
As the U.S. was tracking the first high-altitude balloon spotted over U.S. airspace, another was “transiting Latin America,” according to the Pentagon.
“We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Pentagon press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told NewsNation, adding Friday that he had no further information to provide on the other balloon.
On Friday, the first balloon was spotted above Montana. Local news reports said on Saturday it had come to North Carolina. According to WSOC, the balloon flew over the Charlotte area just after 10 a.m.
China claims the balloon was just a weather research “airship” that was blown off course — but the Pentagon has rejected that. Defense officials say the balloon was, indeed, for surveillance.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was originally supposed to go to Beijing on Sunday for talks aimed at reducing tensions between the United States and China. This was abruptly canceled in light of the balloon.
China downplayed this cancellation in a statement Saturday morning.
“In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
A defense official told the Associated Press that the balloon was the size of three buses.
Some conservatives, including former President Donald Trump, suggested shooting it down earlier. However, Biden, on the advice of his defense team, had previously chosen not to do so because of the danger falling debris could pose to residents on the ground.
But, Austin said, on Wednesday, Biden did give authorization to take down the balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished “without undue risk” to people in the balloon’s path.
“After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload,” Austin said. “In accordance with the President’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities. This action was taken in coordination, and with the full support, of the Canadian government.”
An official from the Department of Defense said in a previous statement that the balloon has limited value from an “intelligence collective collection perspective.
“But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information,” the official went on to say.
However, retired Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem, director of research for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, made the case to NewsNation’s Leland Vittert that the alleged Chinese spy balloon was so close to land, it captured much clearer images than a satellite ever could.
“There was a statement out of the Pentagon about, ‘Hey, the Chinese could get all this by satellite.’ Well, no. The satellites are up about 350 miles,” he said. “This thing’s around 12 miles, and so you can see cat whiskers from that balloon if it’s instrumented correctly.”
This story is developing. Refresh for updates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.