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A seriously injured man being evacuated to hospital in a helicopter plunged from a height of 70 meters yesterday, when he was accidently dropped by rescuers in an apparent safety blunder.

Alaa Mohammed, who had been seriously injured in an explosion when he entered a minefield near the northern town of Beit She'an, survived the fall but later died from his injuries in hospital. The accident occurred as Mohammed was lifted by a cable from the minefield. He was about to be pulled into the aircraft when, for an undetermined reason, he was let loose and plunged to the ground below. "It looked like it was all over but then I saw something fall from the helicopter," a witness recounted. "I couldn't believe my eyes. I didn't even realize it was a person at first. It's incomprehensible. I'm still in shock."

Mohammed was then lifted again to the helicopter still alive, and flown to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where he died of his injuries.

The incident began when Mohammed and two of his friends entered a minefield located within a nature reserve near Beit She'an. They said they had unknowingly entered the minefield with the intent of holding a picnic, but police suspect they may have been poaching. Police and Israel Defense Forces officials said the minefield was fenced off, and signs warning against mines were in place.

Shortly after the three men entered the restricted area, Mohammed stepped on a mine, losing both legs in the blast. "Suddenly we heard an explosion and Alaa hit the ground," Ziad Mohammed, who was with Alaa Mohammed at the time of the explosion, said. "We realized he had been injured by a mine."

The injured man's friends notified rescue forces which promptly arrived on the scene. Sappers tried to reach him, but it was decided he would be airlifted out from the minefield because of the danger of mines, and the evacuation was delayed until the arrival of a helicopter over an hour after the explosion.

"Police officers arrived and we tried to go in and get Alaa, but the police officers wouldn't let us. A helicopter arrived and soldiers went down to get him. Alaa pulled himself up. He spoke to us and said he was fine. We shouted 'go with them.' When the helicopter arrived rescuers were lowered, suspended from the helicopter just above the ground by a cable. They managed to tie the injured man to the cable and lift him to the helicopter hovering around 70 meters above ground when the accident occurred.

"Suddenly, we saw him fall from a distance," Ziad Mohammed said. "He fell on some rocks. Why didn't they let us go and get him out?"

About 15 family members arrived at the Rambam Medical Center, and received calls from relatives who had heard in the media that he had died. "Walla, he is still alive," they informed relatives. "He is currently being operated on."

However, a few hours later he died of his injuries. Alaa Mohammed was his parents' eldest son. He is survived by his parents, a brother and two sisters.

A similar accident occurred in 1992 when two soldiers suspended from a helicopter fell to their deaths after the cable tied to them snapped. The helicopter at the time of the accident was 15 meters above the ground.