China’s foreign ministry on Friday said that it regretted the “unintended entry” of its balloon into US airspace.
US defence officials said they believed the balloon, which has been reported in US media as being about the size of three buses, was in fact a “high-altitude surveillance” device.
The balloon was spotted above sensitive areas in recent days including over the city of Billings in Montana, home to some of the US’s nuclear missile silos.
The US decided not to shoot down the balloon because of the danger of hurting people on the ground from falling debris.
The US government prepared fighter jets including F-22s, to shoot down the balloon if ordered.
However, in a statement, China’s foreign ministry said the balloon was used for “mainly meteorological” purposes and had deviated from its planned route. Said the statement:
Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, 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 referred to the incident as an “unexpected situation” and said Beijing would continue to communicate with the US side.
The balloon flew over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and through Canada before appearing over Billings on Wednesday.
During Thursday’s briefing at the Pentagon, US defence officials said the balloon was “appearing to hang out for a longer period of time” than others tracked by the US over the past several years.
Reporting from the White House in Washington, DC, Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said:
It was spotted by people on the ground who were wondering what was in the sky. That is how the US government first learned about this, incredibly. It was then that the US government started tracking it.
There are going to have to be some answers as to why it was bystanders who first spotted this and not the military or the US government.
President Joe Biden was briefed and asked the military to present options, according to a senior administration official who spoke to Al Jazeera.
Defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised against shooting down the balloon because of risks to the safety of people on the ground.
President Biden accepted that recommendation. | BBC, Al Jazeera