By Sarah Lyall

May 27, International Herald Tribune

LONDON: They were shaped like cigars, saucers, coffins and amorphous blinking blobs. They hovered in a menacing manner, traveled at impossible speeds and vanished into the netherworld, or, in one instance, a hedge in Cornwall.

A few carried humanoid life forms, or so it seemed. A few materialized courtesy of the observers' possibly having had a drink too many, as in the case of an unidentified flying light cluster witnessed loitering in the sky by the patrons of a pub in Kent.

Whatever they were, these phenomena reported to Britain's Ministry of Defense over the years and made public this month were almost certainly not actual alien aircraft piloted by actual alien beings.

"The government has been telling us the truth," declared David Clarke, a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, who has a side interest in UFOs. "There are a lot of weird things in the sky, and some of them we can't explain, but there's not a shred of evidence for a single alien visitation."

Which is, frankly, a letdown, as is the government's prosaic explanation of why, for decades, it has meticulously documented reports of UFO sightings. "We only check the sightings from the perspective of making sure that our military airspace has not been breached, and we pretty much never have airspace breaches," a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity — not because she works with Agent Mulder in some shadowy basement office, but because that is government policy — said the ministry had begun making the files public because it had been inundated with UFO-related requests under Britain's Freedom of Information Act.

The files from 1978 to 2002 were released this month. Some older files have already been declassified and made public; the rest will be released over the next few years. Available on the Web from the National Archives at, they cover hundreds of sightings but are hardly the X-Files. Much of the material consists of one-page forms carrying details like how big the supposed aircraft was and what, if anything, it seemed to be doing.

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photo: The reports, released this month, also included a sketch of a vehicle on skis. (The National Archives)