By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A Chinese spy balloon has changed course and is now floating eastward at about 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) over the central United States, demonstrating a capability to maneuver, the U.S. military said on Friday, in the latest twist to a spying saga that led U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to China.
The disclosure about the spy balloon’s maneuverability directly challenges China’s assertion that the balloon was merely a civilian airship that had strayed into U.S. territory after being blown off course.
“We know this is a Chinese (surveillance) balloon and that it has the ability to maneuver,” Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing at the Pentagon, declining to say precisely how it was powered or who in China was controlling its flight path.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday decided against shooting down the balloon as it floated over Montana due to U.S. military concerns about the likely dispersal of debris, American officials say.
The Pentagon expects the balloon to continue traveling over U.S. airspace for a few more days, Ryder said, declining to speculate on what options the U.S. military might develop in that time as speculation swirled about whether Biden could still order the balloon be destroyed or perhaps captured.
Ryder said the U.S. military would not specify where precisely the balloon was positioned over the central United States, saying he didn’t want to get into an “hour-by-hour” cycle of updates. He said people in any given U.S. state could look up into the sky if they wanted.
“The public certainly has the ability to look up in the sky and see where the balloon is,” Ryder said.
Senator Roger Marshall from Kansas said the spy balloon was over the northeastern part of his state and his staff was is in contact with law enforcement officials.
“I condemn any attempts the Chinese make to spy on Americans. President Biden must protect the sovereignty of the U.S.,” Marshall posted on Twitter.
Ryder added the balloon posed no risk to people on the ground.
He spoke amid growing political fallout over the Chinese balloon’s presence over the United States.
Postponement of Blinken’s trip, which had been arranged in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those on both sides who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a U.S. secretary of state was in 2017.
Biden ignored questions about the balloon when giving remarks on the economy Friday morning.
Chinese spy satellites carry similar sensors to what U.S. officials believe is on the spy balloon, raising questions about why Beijing would risk such a brazen act on the eve of a major diplomatic event.
Still, the Chinese spy balloon has taken a flight path that would carry it over a number of sensitive sites, officials say. One such site could be military bases, including in Montana, which is home to intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
The Billings, Montana, airport on Wednesday issued a ground stop as the military mobilized assets including F-22 fighter jets in case Biden ordered that the balloon be shot down.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)