Rebuked by Washington for its initial silence, Belarus formally expressed regret Thursday that its military shot down a sport balloon carrying two American pilots.
Both pilots were killed when a helicopter gunship shot down their hydrogen balloon during an international race on Tuesday.Race organizers in Wil, Switzerland, identified the men Thursday as Alan Fraenckel and John Stuart-Jervis and said they both lived in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.
Their balloon, the D-Caribbean, was shot down near a military base after failing to respond to radio demands for identification and warning shots, the Belarussian government said.
"He was an awesome pilot. He was beyond good. Flying was his life," Ruth Ludwig of the Balloon Federation of America said of Fraenckel.
The Belarussian Defense Ministry delegation visiting Utah as a guest of the Utah National Guard was unaware of the incident until Salt Lake media brought it to their attention. They had no comment on the circumstances.
Some Belarussian and Russian media called the shooting a "mini-KAL" downing. It was 12 years ago this month that Korean Air Lines' Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet plane when it strayed near a secret Pacific military outpost, killing everyone aboard.
The International Aeronautical Federation said race organizers had obtained "all the necessary permissions" for the balloons to enter Belarussian air space for the annual Gordon Bennett gas balloon race and filed a specific flight plan.
A Belarussian Interior Ministry official who declined to be named said the government was notified in May about the race. The official did not know whether the information had been passed on to the military.
As a pilot, Fraenckel was "naturally fully conversant with international air traffic control pro-ce-dures." Stuart-Jervis was a busi-nessman, the federation said in a statement.
The Belarussian government, which did not notify the United States of the shooting for 24 hours, reiterated its regret in an official statement issued late Wednesday and published in Thursday's newspapers. But it stopped short of an apology, saying the balloon was warned repeatedly after it approached strategic military facilities.
"The government of the republic of Belarus expresses its regret over the air accident, which entailed fatalities," the statement said.
"All steps taken by Air Defense troops to establish contact with the flying object - including activation of additional radar, repeated attempts to establish radio contact, a flyover by military helicopter to spot the pilots and firing of warning shots - did not bring any results," the statement said.