Taiwan reports Chinese balloons at start of New Year holiday

Illustration shows Chinese and Taiwanese flags

TAIPEI (Reuters) -Taiwan's defence ministry said on Saturday it had detected eight Chinese balloons crossing the Taiwan Strait in the previous 24 hours, two of which flew across the island, in an uptick of activity at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory despite the strong objections of the government in Taipei, has complained since December about the balloons, saying they are a threat to aviation safety and attempt at psychological warfare.

In its daily report on Chinese military activities, Taiwan's defence ministry said it spotted the first balloon on Friday morning and the last one early in the evening.

Two crossed the northern part of Taiwan, according to a map provided by the ministry. The others approached the coast before vanishing, though one flew over the sea to the north of Taiwan.

China's defence ministry did not answer calls seeking comment on Saturday at the start of the holiday, the most important festival in the Chinese-speaking world.

Last month, China's government dismissed repeated complaints by Taiwan about the balloons, saying they are for meteorological purposes and should not be hyped up for political reasons.

Chinese warplanes operate daily in the Taiwan Strait and often cross its median line that previously served as an unofficial barrier between the two sides. China says it does not recognise the existence of that line.

Taiwan last month elected Vice President Lai Ching-te as its next president, a man China describes as a dangerous separatist.

Lai, who takes office in May, has offered talks with China, which have been rejected. He says only Taiwan's people can decide their future.

The potential for China to use balloons for spying became a global issue last February when the United States shot down what it said was a Chinese surveillance balloon. China said the balloon was a civilian craft that accidentally drifted astray.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Laurie Chen in Beijing; Editing by William Mallard)