THE mystery surrounding sightings of a strange UFO over West Oxfordshire has been solved.

Reports of an unusual object in the sky over Witney on the night of the total lunar eclipse led to speculation of extra-terrestrial involvement.

But the origin of the object was much more down to earth. Rather than Mars or Venus, the object actually took off from the town's Moorland Close. Witnesses at the time described the unexplained object as 'a slow moving orange light'. But the mystery was only cracked when the Witney Gazette was contacted by Sgt Steve Ilott, of Thames Valley Police - who bought it on the Internet auction site eBay.

Rather than alien technology, the 'craft' was a Chinese-style 'wish balloon', made of nothing more than paper and wire.

Mr Ilott, who is based at Wantage police station, ordered the balloon as a birthday surprise for his wife, Gail, and launched it from his garden on Saturday, March 3, as a 'romantic gesture'.

The balloon was launched by means of a small flame, and rose to a height of 200ft, before drifting off towards Oxford - where people also reported strange lights in the sky.

Sgt Ilott said: "My wife and I had a good laugh, apparently at the expense of the residents of Witney and further afield, because we knew the answer to the mystery of the strange lights in the sky!

"We couldn't believe it when we saw it in the paper. We couldn't stop laughing."

He added: "Even though I appreciate that Witney does have some strange goings on, this is most certainly one of those that has a fully documented explanation."

But he sympathised with those who spotted the object. He said: "It would have looked strange. If you didn't know what it was, you would have found it very eerie. It made no noise whatsoever, went very high up and gave off a nice glow.

"To anybody who saw it it was a UFO, because it was unidentified, it was flying, and it was an object. Unfortunately, it wasn't extra-terrestrial.

"It does make for a good story though - and made my wife's birthday one she won't forget for some time."

Sgt Ilott did warn UFO spotters not to get caught out again, however, adding: "I'm sure the Witney Gazette will get a few more reports in the future - as I've ordered another balloon!"

One of the people who spotted the strange object was Derek Hall, from Jacobs Mill, Witney.

Mr Hall, a 43-year-old sales executive for a security company, said last night he was glad the mystery had been solved. He said: "What made it strange was the fact that it changed direction. It's good to know what it was."