Publication: Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 95

Two US hot-air balloonists were killed September 12 as their balloon was shot down by air defense near the Belarusian city of Brest. The authorities only reported the incident the next day, saying that the balloon was shot down near a strategic missile base. The balloon was taking part in the Gordon Bennett International Balloon Race just across the border in Poland and had permission to enter Belarusian air space. Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko expressed regret at the loss of life and ordered a criminal investigation. But State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that the US did not accept the Belarusian apology, and was also angered by Minsk’s delay in reporting the incident. Itar-Tass said that the balloon was only "fired on" but not "shot down," and that the two sportsmen died from injuries sustained in their unsuccessful landing. (4)

The Belarus air defense forces form a part of the CIS integrated air defense system commanded and controlled from Moscow. Appearing to indirectly justify the shooting down, the Belarus government communique said that the balloon was shot down near a strategic missile base; those bases in Belarus are Russian. The event appears totally unrelated to Lukashenko’s recent enthusiastic support of Boris Yeltsin’s angry charges against NATO and calls for a CIS military pact. Given its size and slow movement the balloon should have been easy to recognize on Belarus radar, and the pilots should have been equipped with radios for contact with air traffic controllers. In earlier times, intrusions into former Soviet airspace also ended tragically many times. This was sometimes through malice, but sometimes also through military incompetence, poor training, or failure to follow procedures. Lukashenko’s quick brandishing of a threat of criminal proceedings suggests he thinks the worst.

Chechnya Roundup.