The international force that monitors the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement said Thursday that eight peacekeepers, including five Americans, were killed when one of its helicopters crashed during a routine mission in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. An eighth peacekeeper was badly injured.
The Multinational Force and Observers said a French peacekeeper and Czech member of the force were also killed. It did not release the names of the dead, pending notification of their families. It said the injured peacekeeper was American.
The MFO initially said there were eight fatalities, including six Americans, but later revised the total to seven dead, including five Americans.
The MFO said the helicopter crashed during a routine mission near Sharm el-Sheikh, a popular Egyptian resort city on the Red Sea, and that an investigation was underway. It did not give a precise location of the crash or say whether the helicopter fell on land or crashed into the sea.
The IDF Spokesperson's Unit said the army had dispatched a helicopter, rescued the sole survivor of the crash and evacuated him to an Israeli hospital for treatment.
An Egyptian official speaking on condition of anonymity per regulations said the UH-60 Black Hawk was on a reconnaissance mission and crashed crashed over Red Sea waters outside Egyptian territorial boundaries, near the island of Tiran, apparently because of a technical failure.
Islamic militant groups and a regional affiliate of the Islamic State group are known to be active in Sinai. But the MFO said there were no signs of an attack. “At this point, there is no information to indicate the crash was anything except an accident,” it said.
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Israel's Foreign Ministry released a statement expressing its “deepest sorrow,” and saying the MFO is “highly regarded for its work.”
“I send my sincere condolences to the families of those killed and wish a speedy recovery to all of the wounded," said Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
Israel's President Reuven Rivlin expressed his condolences to the families of the deceased, as well as wishes for a speedy recovery to the sole survivor of the crash. He said that the MFO “is an integral part of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, which plays a crucial role in maintaining security and stability in our region, and has done so with dedication for more than four decades."
Acting U.S. Defence Secretary Christopher Miller confirmed that six Americans had been killed and said on Twitter that he was saddened by the deaths.
The Czech Republic’s military confirmed one of the fatalities of the Black Hawk’s crash was a Czech. It said the cause of the crash was a technical malfunction and added that the survivor is in critical condition. The chief of Czech army’s general staff, Gen. Ales Opata, expressed his condolences and identified the Czech victim in a Facebook post as Sgt. Maj. Michaela Ticha.
The MFO was installed to monitor the demilitarization of the Sinai under the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord. It has decreased in size in recent years as the neighbouring countries tightened security cooperation against Islamist-led Sinai insurgents.
However both Israel and Egypt have, in the past, opposed proposals by Washington to reduce U.S. participation in the MFO, whose website lists some 452 Americans among the force's 1,154 military personnel.
According to its website, the MFO covers an area of more than 10,000 square kilometres (3,860 square miles) in the Sinai. Thirteen countries contribute troops to the force: Australia, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Fiji, France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Britain, Uruguay, with the United States making up the largest contingent. It is headquartered in Rome.
Cairo sees the MFO as part of a relationship with Israel that, while unpopular with many Egyptians, has brought it billions of dollars in U.S. defence aid, sweetening the foreign-enforced demilitarisation of its sovereign Sinai territory.
For Israel, the MFO offers strategic reassurance in a region where allegiances can shift, recalling that in 2013 Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi toppled an elected Islamist government hostile to its neighbor. In a statement of condolence, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi described the MFO as "extremely important ... to maintaining security and stability."