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    Pentagon releases image of Chinese balloon just before it was downed by US military

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    The US military has released a photograph of a Chinese surveillance balloon captured immediately before it was shot down earlier this month.

    The photo, provided by the Defense Department late Wednesday, clearly shows the pilot’s helmet inside the U-2 jet’s cockpit, with the balloon flying below, off the coast of South Carolina.

    On February 4, fighter aircraft from the United States Northern Command “successfully took down the PRC’s (Chinese) high altitude surveillance balloon.”

    “The military brought the balloon down within sovereign US airspace and over US territorial waters to safeguard civilians while maximizing our ability to collect the payload,” the statement continued.

    China’s balloon was discovered shortly after breaching US airspace above the Western state of Montana, home to American nuclear weapons, and caused a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Beijing.

    The US shot down the balloon on Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina in US territorial waters after it had transited much of the country.

    Beijing has admitted it owned the aircraft, but said it was used for meteorological research and called Washington’s decision to down it “unacceptable and irresponsible.”

    The balloon’s discovery prompted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to call off a planned visit to China and postpone it until unspecified conditions are met.

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