In the largest training exercise of its kind, four hundred soldiers from the Israeli army's Egoz commando unit conducted training exercises in Cyprus this week in cooperation with the Cypriot army. The Israeli soldiers landed on Sunday at Paphos airport in western Cyprus, where Blackhawk helicopters that had been flown there in advance awaited them to take them to several locations in the Troodos Mountains to the east.
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The soldiers rehearsed military operations in abandoned villages and military bases and conducted combat training in open areas and built-up locations and at sites that simulated tunnels, a senior Israel Defense Force brigade commander said. In one exercise, the Israelis crossed through a village in the area at night, in coordination with the local authorities, and carried out combat training at an abandoned military base.
Four-hundred Egoz commando unit soldiers and ten Blackhawk helicopters took part in the exercises, which were reported first by Haaretz. Hummers and jeeps that were put at their disposal were brought from Israel by ship. Members of the Yahalam army engineering unit and dogs from the IDF's Oketz canine unit were flown in.
All told, about 500 Israeli army commando unit soldiers were involved, along with about 200 members of the Israel Air Force. It is the largest training exercise on this scope and the first time that the IDF agreed to the disclosure of news of one of its combat units in a foreign country. About half a year ago, the IDF's Maglan unit took part in a smaller exercise on the Greek island of Crete and in the past carried out other training overseas. "There's an advantage in coming to an unfamiliar location and new territory," the IDF officer said.
The Israeli army didn't specify the identity of the "enemy" simulated in the exercises, but the mountains and hills in the area are rather similar to the Mount Lebanon range in Lebanon. Speaking to reporters, the commander of Egoz, who can only be identified as Lt. Col. Roi, and Israel Air Force Rolling Sword squadron commander Lt. Col. Gilad declined to make reference to Lebanon or the Lebanese Hezbollah militia group.
"For our pilots, the training very much simulates the operational territory. Cyprus is a very, very mountainous country with peaks that reach the height of Mt. Hermon [in the Golan Heights], an area that is not very populated and without spelling out too much, is comparable to our operational areas," Lt. Col. Gilad told military reporters.
An Egoz reserve company, as well as dozens of soldiers from a Cypriot commando unit, played the role of the "enemy forces" in the exercise. The Cypriot air force deployed anti-aircraft systems to simulate the threat posed to air force helicopters by missiles.
Prior to the commando brigade exercise, which was carried out over approximately four days, the helicopter squadrons trained with dozens of reserve soldiers from the IDF's Shaldag unit and a team from Unit 669. In one exercise, the helicopters took Shaldag teams to a mountain at an elevation of about 2,000 meters (6,600 feet), where the combat soldiers trained and then simulated an incident in which soldiers are wounded by enemy fire and needed to be evacuated by Unit 669.
In another exercise, Rolling Sword pilots rehearsed a possible rescue of a pilot who had to abandon his aircraft under anti-aircraft fire. "I don't have a better training exercise than this," the squadron commander said.
The collaboration with the Cypriot army began at the planning stage for the exercise. The entire Egoz company was joined by a team from a Cypriot commando unit that participated in the combat exercise. The Israeli air crews collaborated with their Cypriot counterparts as well and carried out joint sorties.
"This has strategic significance," an officer from the commando brigade said. IDF officials were prepared, however, for the possibility that an exercise of such a wide scope would prompt intelligence surveillance, and the officer said this was taken into account. The exercise, as was reported in Haaretz, also caused tension with Turkey, which is reportedly carrying out its own exercise and training south of Paphos. At this point, the IDF also refused to comment on the matter.