China says alleged spy balloon over US is ‘civilian airship’ used for research

Chinese officials on Friday said that a suspected surveillance balloon seen over the western U.S. is a “civilian airship” used for research, mainly for meteorological purposes.

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A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the airship “deviated far from its planned course.”

“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure,” the statement read. “The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure.”

U.S. officials announced the balloon’s discovery on Thursday, ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first expected trip to Beijing, The Associated Press reported. Two unidentified officials told Bloomberg News that the Biden administration decided to postpone the trip, which had not been formally announced, after the balloon was detected.

Pentagon officials on Thursday announced that they were tracking an “intelligence-gathering balloon” believed to have been launched from China. Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said in a statement that the balloon was “well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

It was seen Thursday over Montana, according to the Department of Defense.

“Instances of this kind of balloon activity have been observed previously over the past several years,” Ryder said. “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.”

Before reaching the U.S. mainland, the balloon flew over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and then over Canada, The Washington Post reported, citing an unidentified U.S. official. In a statement Thursday, Canadian authorities said they were monitoring “a potential second incident,” though they did not elaborate on the situation.

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