By Yashwant Raj
Washington, Feb 5 (IANS): Fighter jets have shot down the Chinese spy balloon that had been adrift across US airspace for days now.
"I ordered them to shoot it down," President Joe Biden said on Saturday confirming the downing of the Chinese contraption that had gripped the country in a frenzy since Thursday, when the US department of defense had first made it public, acknowledging, at the same time, it was not first such incident.
President Biden said he had ordered the military to shoot it down on Wednesday in internal discussions preceding the public disclosure. Military leaders had recommended waiting because of fear of falling debris on civilian population underneath.
Further affirmation of the shooting of the balloon followed in a statement from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. "This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, US fighter aircraft assigned to US Northern Command successfully brought down the high altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People's Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in US airspace," he said.
He added that the balloon was being "used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental US.
He reiterated that the President had ordered it to be shot down on Wednesday as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon's path. "After careful analysis, US 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 further and added, "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."
The balloon was shot down just after it left the mainland and was above water, off the coast of South Carolina.
"We're gonna take care of it," President Biden told reporters just hours before, when asked if the US will shoot down the balloon.
Earlier in the afternoon the Federal Aviation Agency, the US aviation regulator, had closed airspace around the time of the shooting and shut down three airports in preparation.
Witnesses recounted in TV interviews and on social media that they saw several fighter jets around the balloon for 30 to 40 minutes before it was shot down.
The balloon caused major spike in tensions between the US and China, just as the two sides ere hoping to build on the first-ever in-person summit of President Biden and President Xi Jinping.
The US described the balloon an "unacceptable" violation of US sovereignty and ed to the postponement of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's high profile visit to Beijing this week.
Beijing had in an unprecedented act of contrition expressed regrets for the balloon straying into American airspace and said the airship was "civilian in nature, used for meteorological and other scientific research. Due to the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capability, the airship deviated from its intended course"
That the first official word on the shooting of the balloon came from the president himself was due to the the heat he was getting from Republicans. "China's brazen disregard for US sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent," House of Representatives' Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy wrote in a tweet.
"Would Trump have let China fly a spy balloon over our country?" asked Representative Jim Jordan, a key ally of former President Donald Trump. "Would Reagan? JFK? Truman? No, no, no, and no."
"So why's Biden letting China off the hook?"
Biden had already issued the kill-order, unknown to them.