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

The US has released an image of a Chinese surveillance balloon taken just before it was shot down by the US military earlier this month.

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

On Feb. 4, US Northern Command fighter aircraft “successfully brought down the PRC’s (Chinese) high altitude surveillance balloon.”

“The military brought down the balloon within sovereign US airspace and over US territorial waters to protect civilians while maximizing our ability to recover the payload,” it added.

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.

Also read: China's role as Ukraine peacemaker in doubt as it 'deepens' Russia ties

The US shot down the balloon on February 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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