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U.S. tracked spy balloon after it lifted off from China, officials say

U.S. intelligence officials were tracking the spy balloon that was shot down earlier this month since it lifted off from the south coast of China, U.S. officials said Tuesday. 

According to U.S. officials, after takeoff, the spy balloon drifted east in the direction of Guam and Hawaii and then went north to Alaska and entered U.S. airspace on Jan. 28. Given the path, it's possible that the balloon was blown off course by weather, but U.S. officials said that once it came south over the continental United States, it was being controlled by China. 

The tracking of the balloon was first reported by The Washington Post

China has insisted the balloon was for weather purposes and that it veered off course. A State Department official said in a statement last week that the balloon contained equipment that was "clearly for intelligence surveillance," including "multiple antennas" that were "likely capable of collecting and geo-locating communications." 

High-Altitude Balloon 2023
Sailors assigned to Assault Craft Unit 4 prepare material recovered in the Atlantic Ocean from a high-altitude balloon for transport to federal agents at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek Feb. 10, 2023.  U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ryan Seelbach

Pentagon officials confirmed on Feb. 2 that they had been tracking the spy balloon, and said they did not want to shoot it down given the damage the debris could cause. Following the announcement that the U.S. was tracking it, the balloon stopped loitering and proceeded as fast as it could toward the East Coast, a U.S. official said.  A U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4. 

China said on Monday that the U.S. has flown more than 10 surveillance balloons over their airspace in the past year, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin saying it is "common for U.S. balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries." The U.S. has denied operating any surveillance balloons over China.

When news broke about the Chinese balloon flying over U.S. airspace, Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a planned trip to China. When asked on Tuesday if China is undermining diplomatic relations, State Department spokesman Ned Price said China is "operating from its heels at the moment." 

Meanwhile, the White House said Tuesday that there is "strong consideration" the other three objects shot down over the weekend over the U.S. and Canada were "benign." But it won't be certain until the debris is recovered and analyzed.

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