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A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Mont., on Feb. 1.Chase Doak/Reuters

A U.S. military fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Saturday, a week after it first entered U.S. airspace and triggered a dramatic - and public - spying saga that worsened Sino-U.S. relations.

President Joe Biden said he had issued an order on Wednesday to take down the balloon, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to safeguard civilians from debris crashing to Earth from thousands of feet (meters) above commercial air traffic.

“They successfully took it down, and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said.

China’s foreign ministry protested the downing of the balloon, saying the action violates international norms and it reserves the right to take further action in response.

“The U.S. in insisting on the use of force is an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice. China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, at the same time, reserving the right to take further actions in response,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sunday morning.

Multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in the mission, but only one -- an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia -- took the shot at 2:39 p.m., using a single AIM-9X supersonic, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, a senior U.S. military official said.

The balloon was shot down about six nautical miles off the U.S. coast of the Atlantic Ocean, over relatively shallow water, potentially aiding efforts to recover elements of the Chinese surveillance equipment over the coming days, U.S. officials said.

One U.S. military official said the debris field was spread out over seven miles of ocean, and multiple U.S. military vessels were already on site.

The shootdown came shortly after the U.S. government ordered a halt to flights in and out of three South Carolina airports - Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston - due to what it said at the time was an undisclosed “national security effort.” The flights resumed on Saturday afternoon.

While Saturday’s shootdown concludes the military dimension to the spying saga, Biden is likely to continue to face intense political scrutiny from Republican opponents in Congress who argue he failed to act quickly enough.

A senior administration official said after shooting down the balloon, the U.S. government spoke directly with China about the action. The State Department also briefed allies and partners around the world, the official said.

Questions also remain about how much information China may have gathered during the balloon’s trek across the United States.

The balloon first entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28 before moving into Canadian airspace on Monday Jan 30. It then re-entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 31, a U.S. defense official said. Once it crossed over U.S. land, it did not return to the open waters, making a shootdown difficult.

U.S. officials did not publicly disclose the balloon’s presence over the United States until Thursday.

“It’s clear the Biden administration had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people,” said U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who leads the House Armed Services Committee.

Biden’s emphasis on Saturday that -- days ago -- he ordered the balloon shot down as soon as possible could be an effort to respond to such critics.

Former president Donald Trump, Biden’s potential rival in the 2024 election, called earlier this week for the balloon to be shot down, and has sought to portray himself as stronger than Biden on China. The U.S. relationship with China is likely to be a major theme of the 2024 presidential race.

Washington has called it a “clear violation” of U.S. sovereignty and notified Beijing about the shootdown on Saturday, a U.S. official said.

“Our assessment - and we’re going to learn more as we pick up the debris - was that it was not likely to provide significant additive value over and above other (Chinese) intel capability, such as satellites in low-Earth orbit,” the senior U.S. defense official said. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first announced the shootdown, saying the balloon was being used by China “in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States.”

A Reuters photographer who witnessed the shootdown said a stream came from a jet and hit the balloon, but there was no explosion. It then began to fall, the photographer said.

The U.S. military did not immediately recover the payload from the Chinese surveillance balloon, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), following the downing of the balloon, said that arrival and departure flights from three South Carolina airports – Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston – were resuming, after having been paused earlier in the day because of a “national security effort.”

The FAA had issued a temporary flight restriction to clear airspace around the South Carolina coast. The notice blocked flights to more than 100 square miles (260 square kilometers) -- mostly over the Atlantic Ocean, according to a document posted by the FAA. The notice warned the military could use deadly force if airplanes violate the restrictions and do not comply with orders to leave.

The Reuters photographer in the Myrtle Beach area could see the suspected spy balloon overhead, with two U.S. military jets flying alongside it.

China expressed regret that an “airship” used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes had strayed into U.S. airspace.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that the flight of the “airship” over the United States was a force majeure accident, and accused U.S. politicians and media of taking advantage of the situation to discredit Beijing.

“Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted over countries across five continents, including in East Asia, South Asia and Europe,” the U.S. official said.

The suspected Chinese spy balloon prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to China this week that had been expected to start on Friday.

The postponement of Blinken’s trip, which had been agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship between the two countries.

China is keen for a stable U.S. relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and neglected by foreign investors alarmed by what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.

The Pentagon said on Friday that another Chinese balloon was observed over Latin America, without saying where exactly.

With a file from The Associated Press

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