Wed, Jan 19, 2000 - Page 1 News List

Military sees flying objects over Strait

STRAITS TENSIONSNot since the 1996 missile crisis has the military claimed to have spotted mysterious objects heading toward the island

By Brian Hsu  /  STAFF REPORTER , WITH AGENCIES

Taiwan's military accused China yesterday of sending nearly 20 "flying objects" -- possibly balloons -- across the Taiwan Strait into Taiwan air space, threatening civil aviation safety in the process.

A military spokesman said the objects were spotted on Sunday.

"The objects were found flying westward at altitudes of 15,000 to 24,000 feet in the middle of the Strait," Defense Ministry spokesman Kung Fan-ding (孔繁定) said.

"Later they disappeared off the northwest coast of Taiwan," Kung told reporters, adding that his ministry immediately informed the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA, 民航局) after military radar spotted the objects.

CAA officials have said, however, that civil aviation radar detected no unidentified objects in Taiwan's air space on Sunday.

"Whatever their purpose was, they would affect flight safety. Not only military planes, but civilian planes," Kung said.

In the air space where the balloons were discovered, Kung said, there is busy civilian air traffic flow with hundreds of domestic and international flights daily.

The detection of the mystery objects was the first of its kind since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, when balloons were sighted after having been launched from China's Fujian Province.

Those balloons were sent up to collect weather information for fighter planes which were amassed at that time at air bases in coastal provinces facing Taiwan, said Major General Chao Lien-ti (趙連悌), an official under the Defense Ministry's deputy chief of the general staff for information.

Chao said he believed the objects the military claims to have spotted on Sunday were launched for intelligence purposes.

"It is likely that the balloons were used to collect information about Taiwan's air defense radar. But we did not discern any radio signals emitted by the balloons," Chao said.

Chao denied, however, suggestions that the spotting of the objects on Sunday necessarily indicated any large-scale military maneuvering by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).

China could be using the balloons to carry radar that might be used to spot holes in Taiwan's air defenses, said Cheng Chi-wen, an editor of the Taiwan-based Defense International magazine.

Chao assured the public that if China tried to use balloons to launch bombing missions or start bio-chemical warfare against Taiwan, the armed forces would have the capability to respond.

Due to the sensitivity of the incident, military officials have briefed authorities from the quasi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF, 海基會), the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 陸委會) and the Ministry of Finance (財政部).

"We hope to express our wish to China -- through the SEF or the MAC -- that we do not want to see any more of the balloons sent into the Taiwan Strait. We will send fighter planes to check out the situation if there are any such occurrences in the future," Chao said.

The SEF has reportedly sent a letter already to its Chinese counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, asking Chinese authorities to look into the matter.

An editorial yesterday in the China Times Express daily said Taiwan's military might have announced the mysterious objects to whip up tensions in the Strait and help the KMT's presidential candidate, Vice President Lien Chan (連戰), who is running in third place in some of the latest polls.

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