U.S. sites of interest visited by past Chinese balloons, Pentagon says

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Adds details from Ryder, bylines

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON, Feb 8 (Reuters) -Four previous Chinese spy balloon flights over the United States passed over sites that would be of interest to Beijing, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, without elaborating on the paths the balloons took or whether the U.S. sites were military ones.

Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the United States was aware of the four past flights before it detected the latest Chinese balloon.

A U.S. military fighter jet shot down that balloon on Saturday off the South Carolina coast, triggering condemnation from China, which said it was a civilian air vessel.

"They were over sites that would be of interest to the Chinese," Ryder told reporters.

Ryder said that U.S. Navy ships were still recovering the debris and on Tuesday divers and explosive technicians carried out underwater collection and survey activities.

He added that USS Carter Hall was leading the recovery efforts, which include using unmanned underwater vehicles.

Ryder said the balloon was part of a larger Chinese surveillance balloon program.

A senior U.S. general said on Monday that the military had been unable to detect previous spy balloons in real time before the one that appeared on Jan. 28 and called it an "awareness gap."

The Pentagon said over the weekend that Chinese spy balloons had briefly flown over the United States at least three times during President Donald Trump's administration and one previously under President Joe Biden.

The United States held briefings in Washington and Beijing with foreign diplomats from 40 nations about the Chinese balloon that Washington shot down on Saturday for spying over U.S. territory, a senior administration official and diplomats said on Tuesday.

The balloon caused a political uproar in Washington and prompted the top U.S. diplomat, Antony Blinken, to cancel a trip to Beijing that both countries had hoped would steady their rocky relations.

China has said it was a weather balloon that had blown off course into U.S. airspace and accused the United States of overreacting.

The White House has downplayed any drastic effect the incident would have on U.S.-China relations. Biden himself said on Monday that the issue had not weakened relations.

EXPLAINER -What we know and don't know about the Chinese balloon nL4N34O1Q1

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Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Lisa Shumaker


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