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President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the Chinese spy balloon and other aerial objects shot down over North America in recent days, at the White House on Feb. 16. Biden says the three objects appeared unrelated to the Chinese spy balloon and were most likely tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions.TOM BRENNER/The New York Times

U.S. President Joe Biden says three unidentified flying objects shot down over the U.S. and Canada by fighter jets this past weekend were likely harmless research balloons caught in a NORAD dragnet after the earlier downing of a Chinese spy balloon.

In his first public comments on the shootdowns, Mr. Biden sought on Thursday to reassure the world that there did not appear to be a sudden increase in UFOs. He also promised new rules meant to avoid having warplanes take out innocuous aircraft in the future.

“These three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” the President told reporters in the Eisenhower Executive Office building near the White House.

Mr. Biden said it was still unclear who owned the balloons or what they were doing, but that “nothing right now suggests … they were surveillance vehicles” being used for espionage by other countries.

The saga began earlier this month after NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defence Command) tracked a Chinese spy balloon across Canada and the U.S. before Mr. Biden ordered it shot down off the coast of South Carolina. The President took political heat for not felling the balloon sooner.

The Pentagon has said that this episode prompted the U.S. and Canadian militaries to look more closely for “slow-moving objects,” which they had previously ignored.

Over the course of three days, U.S. fighter jets used sidewinder missiles to take out UFOs over the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, the boreal forest in central Yukon and Lake Huron west of the Bruce Peninsula.

The objects, the U.S. military has said, were smaller than the Chinese spy balloon, at lower altitudes and did not appear to have the ability to manoeuvre. Search teams are still trying to find and recover the debris.

“We don’t have any evidence that there has been a sudden increase in the number of objects in the sky. We’re now just seeing more of them partially because of the steps we’ve taken to increase our radars,” Mr. Biden said Thursday.

This month’s episodes mark the first time NORAD, a U.S.-Canada joint aerial defence system set up in 1958 to protect against Soviet invasion, has shot down aircraft.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has contended that downing the UFOs, regardless of what they were, was necessary because of the hazard they posed to planes. “What is very clear is they were a threat to civilian travel, to commercial airliners. That’s why the decision was taken,” Mr. Trudeau, who authorized the shooting of the UFO in Yukon, said earlier this week.

Such reasoning opened the possibility of NORAD now taking out errant commercial balloons on a regular basis.

Mr. Biden tried to avoid such a scenario by promising “sharper rules” for handling UFOs, “distinguishing between those that are likely to pose safety and security risks that necessitate action, and those that do not.”

He said there would also be new rules for launching and reporting unmanned balloons in a bid to make it easier to identify future flying objects when NORAD detects them. Much of the world’s airspace is currently “unregulated,” he said, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will work on new international rules.

The President, however, offered little new information on the Chinese spy balloon. He said only that he would be speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the matter and that he had placed sanctions on six companies connected with China’s spy balloon program.

According to the Washington Post, the U.S. government had been tracking the balloon since its launch in China’s Hainan province. The report raised the possibility that the balloon had initially been meant to spy on American military bases in the South Pacific before getting blown off-course.

It also suggests that NORAD was well aware of the craft but the U.S. and Canada made a decision not to shoot it down when it first entered North American airspace.

Mr. Biden said on Thursday that U.S. intelligence had been able to study the balloon to see how it operated and protected military sites from getting spied on as it passed overhead. Shooting it after it had floated over the Atlantic sent a “clear message the violation of our sovereignty is unacceptable,” he said.