US says salvaged sunken remnants of downed Chinese balloon reinforce it was for spying

The US has finished work to recover sunken remnants of the Chinese balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina and the debris reinforces that it was for spying, officials have said.

The White House national security spokesman, John Kirby, said the wreckage included “electronics and optics” but declined to say what the US had learned from it so far.

The US military announced the recovery operations ended on Thursday and the final pieces were on their way to an FBI lab in Virginia for analysis. Air and maritime restrictions off South Carolina were lifted.

The announcement capped three dramatic weeks that saw US fighter jets shoot down four airborne objects – the large confirmed Chinese balloon on 4 February, then three much smaller objects about a week later over Canada, Alaska and Lake Huron. They are the first known peacetime shoot-downs of unauthorised objects in US airspace.

China admitted it owned the first balloon and apologised, claiming it was not for surveillance, but then objected when it was shot down.

The officials also said the search for the small object that was shot down over Lake Huron had stopped with nothing recovered. Also unrecovered were two objects shot down over the Yukon and northern Alaska.

While the military is confident the balloon shot down off South Carolina was a surveillance airship operated by China, the Biden administration has admitted the three smaller objects were likely civilian-owned balloons that came to be targeted because of heightened radar detection after the first one.

Much of the Chinese balloon fell into about 15 metres (50ft) of water, and the navy collect remnants from the surface while divers and unmanned naval vessels pulled up the rest.

Joe Biden, the US president, has directed his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to lead an interagency team to establish “sharper rules” to track, monitor and potentially shoot down unknown aerial objects.

Key questions about the Chinese balloon remain unanswered, including what, if any, intelligence it was able to collect as it flew over sensitive military sites in the US, and whether it was able to transmit anything back to China.

The US tracked it for several days after it left China, said a US official who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. It appeared to have been blown off its initial trajectory, which was toward the US territory of Guam, and ultimately flew over the continental US.

Balloons and other unidentified objects have been previously spotted over Guam, a base for the US navy and air force in the western Pacific.

It is unclear how much control China retained over the balloon once it veered from its original trajectory. A second US official said the balloon could have been directed to loiter over a specific target, but it was unclear whether Chinese forces did so.

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