MOSCOW, Sept. 13 -- Air defense forces in the former Soviet republic of Belarus shot down a balloon and killed its two U.S. pilots after they drifted off course during a race and crossed the border from Poland, officials said Wednesday. A statement from the U.S. Embassy in the Belarus capital Minsk said there was no clear explanation why the balloon had been shot down.
The embassy said U.S. officials were on their way to recover the bodies of two Americans, whose names were not immediately released. The balloon apparently drifted off course while participating in the annual Gordon Bennett balloon race, which began in Switzerland on Saturday. It was shot down Tuesday near the town of Bereza, in the Brest region along the border with Poland, but the embassy was not notified until Wednesday. Defense Ministry officials in Belarus told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass that airdefense forces detected an unidentified aircraft crossing the country's western border shortly before noon on Tuesday. 'Air defense units tried to contact the balloon several times, but after receiving no reply they fired at it,' Tass said. The agency said fighter planes had taken off during the incident, but it was not clear whether the balloon was shot down by a plane or by a surface-to-air missile. The balloon's basket and the bodies of the two American crew members were found in a forest near the village of Krugloye several hours after the incident. Both victims apparently died from injuries received in the fall. A special government commission was set up to investigate the incident. The Gordon Bennett race, named after an American newspaperman and adventurer, is an international competition that took place annually from 1906 to 1938 and then was resumed after World War II. The race is organized by the Lucerne-based Swiss Aero-Club.