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Israeli Team Aids Nairobi Effort

August 10, 1998

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A bomb-laden truck swerved into an Israeli army post in south Lebanon and exploded 15 years ago, collapsing a building and killing 29 Israeli soldiers inside.

Out of such grim experience was born the Israeli military’s crack Search and Rescue Unit, made up of soldiers with specialized cutting tools, doctors and sniffer dogs.

The team honed a reputation for readiness to rush to the rescue to almost any corner of the earth _ and proved it anew at the scene of the Nairobi bombing.

Arriving the day after Friday’s embassy bombing in Nairobi, the Israeli unit went straight from the airport to the blast site and plucked at least three survivors and 26 bodies from the rubble.

The unit’s resume is impressive. It was sent to earthquakes in the 1980s in Mexico City and in Soviet Armenia, the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 Rwandan civil war.

For the Israeli rescuers, most of them reservists, the Nairobi operation was a ``mitzvah,″ a good deed required by Jewish law.

``It’s good for us and good for everybody. It shows that we are for anybody who needs us, and we can really help them,″ said Ilan Cytron, a 25-year-old law student who helped lead a mother and son from the rubble Sunday.

But the unit doesn’t allow its good deeds to speak for themselves. The army is savvy about courting the media, inviting journalists to travel with the team, handing out photos and videotapes of rescuers and dropping its normal reluctance to allow interviews with soldiers involved in an ongoing operation.

The rescuers may help polish Israel’s image at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is being criticized in some quarters for hard-line policies that have crippled the Arab-Israeli peace process.

As soon as he heard of the blast, Netanyahu offered help to both President Clinton and Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.

Israeli ties with Kenya have long been close. Israel used Nairobi as a refueling stop and fallback base in the daring July 1976 Entebbe rescue, in which Israeli commandos freed hijacked prisoners held by Palestinians in Uganda.

The Israeli team’s ability to move fast and sleep rough is an outgrowth of the country’s military doctrine, one that relies on citizen soldiers to drop what they’re doing and be at their posts within 24 hours.

The 85-member rescue unit is headed by a reserve colonel, Udi Ben Uri, 43, who manages a stone quarry in civilian life. He was vacationing in Holland with his three children when he got the call up notice.

``It’s a mitzvah to save human beings, but we don’t do it because of that, or the publicity. We do it because that’s what we are trained to do. Our services are needed worldwide, and that’s what we do best,″ Ben Uri said.

The rescuers use a number of specialized tools, including inflatable pillows that are inserted into the rubble and filled with air to raise it up.

``It’s not the machinery and the tools,″ said Liran Golan, a reserve lieutenant who just returned from Nairobi. ``It’s the basic willingness to travel and help.″

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