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Japan rescues Chinese balloonist trying to reach disputed islands

Tokyo (AFP) - A Chinese man who tried to fly a hot-air balloon hundreds of kilometres to islands disputed between Beijing and Tokyo was rescued by Japan's coastguard after ditching in the sea, an official said Thursday.

The 35-year-old took off from China's Fujian province on Wednesday morning in an attempt to land on one of the Tokyo-controlled islands, the Japan Coast Guard official said.

It was an ambitious goal -- hot-air balloons travel largely at the mercy of the wind, and the islands are tiny specks in the East China Sea 359 kilometres (223 miles) away from the take-off point.

They are hotly disputed between Beijing, which regards them as its territory and calls them Diaoyu, and Tokyo, which calls them Senkaku. Tensions have at times reached feverish heights.

In the event the pilot sent a request for help several hours into his flight and ditched in the sea, with a Japanese rescue helicopter picking him up 22 kilometres south of his goal, the official said.

The man, who was unhurt, was handed over to a Chinese patrol ship outside Japanese territorial waters, he added.

Photos distributed by the Japan Coast Guard showed a striped, multicoloured balloon drifting half-deflated in the steely blue waters.

Reports identified the man as Xu Shuaijun, a balloonist who in 2012 became the first man to pilot a hot air balloon over northeast China's Bohai Bay.

On his verified account on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, Xu posted a short message declaring that he had been returned safely to the city of Fuqing in Fujian province.

"I have returned safely," Xu wrote. "Thanks everyone for your concern."

His supporters wrote back with words of support, with many declaring him a "hero" who had done well even if he had fallen short of his target.

"So awesome!" one user wrote. "What innovative thinking and action!"

"It's enough that you came back safely," wrote another. "Brother Xu, your countrymen are proud of your pioneering act!"

Xu did not post any further details on his voyage and did not immediately respond to a request by AFP for comment.

But in two September microblog postings, he excitedly made note of his plans.

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This Wednesday, Jan. 1 photo released by Japan's 11th Regional Coast Guard shows a hot-air balloon in which the Coast Guard says a Chinese cook took a ride, in waters near the East China Sea islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.


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