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Chinese spy balloon ‘was 200ft tall and may have had explosives’

Chinese spy balloon flies over Montana   (CHASE DOAK/AFP via Getty Images)
Chinese spy balloon flies over Montana (CHASE DOAK/AFP via Getty Images)

One of America’s top generals has said the Chinese spy balloon shot down over the Atlantic may have been carrying explosives.

Air Force General Glen D VanHerck revealed it was 200ft (60m) tall, weighed thousands of pounds and had a payload the size of a jetliner.

The balloon, which drifted through US airspace for a week before it was shot down over the Atlantic on Saturday, provoked a row between the US and China that has further strained relations between the two countries.

VanHerck, the head of US North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad), who oversaw the operation to shoot down the balloon, said the military did not have evidence that the aircraft contained an explosive device, but could not rule it out. That risk was a factor in his decision to bring it down over open water, he told reporters.

The commander of US Northern Command said: “I can’t confirm whether it had explosives or not.

“Anytime you down something like this, we make an assumption that that potential exists.”

His description came as the Pentagon defended President Joe Biden’s decision to wait and shoot down the craft on Saturday after it cleared US land.

“The balloon assessment was up to 200ft tall for the actual balloon,” VanHerck said. “Of the payload itself, I would categorise that as a jet airliner type of size, maybe a regional jet ... [It] probably weighed in excess of a couple thousand pounds.

“From a safety standpoint, picture yourself with large debris weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds falling out of the sky.”

An F-22 fighter jet shot it down off the coast of South Carolina. Mr Biden had said that he wanted the balloon downed as soon as possible when he was informed of it last Tuesday.

The Pentagon said at the weekend that Chinese surveillance balloons had entered US airspace at least three times when Donald Trump was president but VanHerck said that those intrusions had not been detected at the time. The general put the intelligence lapse down to an “awareness gap”.

China has insisted that the balloon was a civilian craft conducting weather research that had blown off course.