China confirmed that the high-altitude balloon being tracked over the northern U.S. is Chinese, claiming that it is a civilian aircraft that strayed off-course.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson announced the details after the Pentagon on Thursday revealed that it had been tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon over the U.S. for several days.
“The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes,” the Chinese spokesperson said in a 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 Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure” the spokesperson added.
A senior defense official told reporters Thursday that the U.S. has “very high confidence” that the suspected Chinese balloon was flying over sensitive sites, collecting information, the Associated Press reported.
The balloon flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and into Montana, home to one of the U.S.’ three silo fields for launching nuclear missiles, NBC News reported.
As it drifted into the area of Billings, Montana on Wednesday, flights stopped for about two hours at the Billings Logan International Airport, local news outlet KULR reported. A senior defense official said F-22 fighter jets were scrambled, but President Joe Biden heeded the “strong recommendation” of senior military leaders that it was too risky to shoot the balloon down, CNN reported.
A senior defense official said “our best assessment right now” is that the balloon doesn’t pose a “significantly enhanced” threat of intelligence gathering, nor is there a threat to civilian aviation, CNN reported. But if the level of risk changes, the U.S. “will have options to deal with this balloon.”
“We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland,” the official said.
This was a breaking news story. The details were periodically updated as more information became available.