United States fighter jets have shot down an “unidentified object” flying near the Canadian border in the Midwest, the Pentagon said, the latest incident since a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon put North American security forces on high alert.
The object was flying at 6,100 metres (20,000ft), and while it was not a military threat, it could have potentially interfered with domestic air traffic, Pentagon spokesperson Patrick Ryder said in a statement.
It was shot down at 2:42pm local time (19:42 GMT) over Lake Huron on the US-Canada border, the statement said.
It was the third to be shot down over North America in as many days and the fourth in just more than a week.
The flurry of defence activity began in late January when a white balloon appeared over the US and hovered over the country for days. The US said it was a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon and fighter jets eventually brought it down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4.
The latest object appeared to be octagonal in structure, with strings hanging from it but no discernible payload, an official told reporters.
It had been detected over Montana near sensitive military sites, prompting the closure of US airspace, the Pentagon said.
Not ruling out aliens
US Air Force General Glen VanHerck, who is responsible for the protection of US airspace, told reporters that the military had not been able to identify what the three most recent objects are, how they stay aloft, or where they are coming from.
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“We’re calling them objects, not balloons, for a reason,” said VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and Northern Command.
VanHerck said he would not rule out aliens or any other explanation.
“I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out,” he said.
Legislators have been calling for more information on the objects.
“We need the facts about where they are originating from, what their purpose is, and why their frequency is increasing,” said US legislator Debbie Dingell, one of several Michigan lawmakers who welcomed the move to shoot the craft down.
Heino Klinck, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia, told Al Jazeera that the government needed to be more forthcoming about the latest incursions.
“I think what the government is currently challenged with is what to release publicly without compromising sources and methods,” Klinck said. “We do not want to provide our adversaries with insights into what we can detect, what we can’t detect [and] how we obtain certain types of information. Nonetheless, it is high time for the government to say something.”
The latest object was first detected on Saturday evening over Montana but was initially thought to be an anomaly. Radar picked it up again on Sunday hovering over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and moving over Lake Huron, according to US officials, who had knowledge of the incident and spoke to The Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operations.
US and Canadian authorities had restricted some airspace over the lake earlier in the day as fighters were scrambled to intercept and try to identify the object.
Canadian authorities, meanwhile, are working to find the wreckage of the object shot down on Saturday over the Yukon, a sparsely populated region in the country’s far northwest.
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“Recovery teams are on the ground, looking to find and analyse the object,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Sunday.
“The security of citizens is our top priority and that’s why I made the decision to have that unidentified object shot down,” he said, adding that it had posed a danger to civilian aircraft.
The three latest flying objects were much smaller in size, different in appearance, and flew at lower altitudes than the suspected spy balloon.
China denies the first balloon was being used for surveillance and says it was a civilian weather monitoring station. It has condemned the US for shooting it down.
US officials want to precisely identify the other objects shot down in recent days amid concerns in Washington about what it believes is a large-scale aerial surveillance programme orchestrated by Beijing.