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3 Downed Objects Still Unrecovered, Says US Military

A U.S. Navy sailor conducts a search for debris of a high-altitude Chinese balloon shot down by the U.S. Air Force off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 7, 2023. 3 more objects, downed the next week over the U.S. and Canada, remain unrecovered.

The United States said Monday it does not know the origin of the three high-altitude objects it shot down over the past few days as they drifted in the winds over North America.

The government said it does not believe the objects were surveillance aircraft, though it is leaving open the possibility that they may be.

"They didn't have propulsion," National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at the White House. "They were not being maneuvered. They didn't have surveillance [capability], but we couldn't rule it out."

"We're sort of in uncharted territory here," Kirby said.

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He said parts of all three objects fell "in remote, difficult places to reach" — ice off the coast of the far northwestern U.S. state of Alaska, the Yukon territory of northwestern Canada and the depths of Lake Huron on the U.S.-Canada border.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said U.S. personnel have not yet recovered any debris from the three objects.

Austin told reporters Monday in Brussels, where he is scheduled to meet with NATO defense ministers this week, that weather is hampering recovery efforts in Alaska while the remote terrain in Canada is affecting the search there.

He said the priority for the Pentagon is "debris recovery so that we can get a better sense of what these objects are."

Kirby declined to refer to any of the three airborne objects as balloons.

"We don't know who owns them," he said, in contrast to the Chinese spy balloon the U.S. shot down February 4 over the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of the southern state of South Carolina after it traversed the U.S. mainland for eight days.

China is continuing to claim the balloon was an errant weather-monitoring aircraft that drifted off course. But U.S. officials say the parts they have recovered from the ocean floor show the balloon was on a surveillance mission.

The U.S. military's Northern Command said in a statement Monday that crews had recovered "significant debris from the site, including all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces identified as well as large sections of the structure."

Kirby said President Joe Biden "has made this a very top priority," to determine the ownership and origin of the three objects downed by U.S. fighter pilots, either on his orders, or in the case of the one that landed in the Yukon, in consultation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The spokesperson said the three objects were shot down because they posed a "very real" threat to civilian aviation, with the objects near Alaska and over the Yukon territory drifting about 12,000 meters above the Earth and the one over Lake Huron at half that height.

After the Chinese balloon was discovered, Kirby said U.S. radar has been recalibrated to look for more objects.

"One of the reasons we're seeing more is we're looking for more," he said.

Earlier, Kirby vehemently rejected Beijing's accusation Monday that the U.S. had flown more than 10 high-altitude balloons over China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, at a daily briefing, said, "It is also common for U.S. balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries. Since last year, U.S. high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China's airspace more than 10 times without the approval of Chinese authorities."

He said the United States should "first reflect on itself and change course rather than smear and instigate a confrontation."

"Not true. Not doing it. Just absolutely not true," Kirby told the U.S.-based cable news network MSNBC. "We're not flying balloons over China."

Both countries deploy spy satellites, but after Wang accused the United States of flying balloons over China, he offered no details about how they had been dealt with or whether they had alleged links to the U.S. government.

The United States said Monday it has also spotted Chinese balloons flying through the Middle East. But Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich, commander of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command, said, "They've not been a threat. They've flown through a few times since I've been in command but nothing that I would be concerned about in any way."

Following the balloon incident, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a visit to Beijing that potentially could have eased relations between the two countries and disagreements over Taiwan, trade, human rights and Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea.

VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin and Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.