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Two helicopters crash in Israel’s worst military air disaster

February 5, 1997

SHAAR YESHUV, Israel (AP) _ The ball of fire fell from the sky with a deafening roar. Rushing to the scene of the helicopter crash that killed 73 soldiers in northern Israel, Dalia Golan heard faint cries.

``They must have been the last cries of the wounded,″ the nurse said Tuesday night, still in shock after witnessing Israel’s worst military air disaster.

Two CH-53 Sikorsky helicopters collided five miles south of the Lebanon border around 7 p.m. One of them smashed into an empty house, which exploded into flames.

The accident in northern Israel was likely to raise new questions about Israel’s costly involvement in Lebanon _ as well as about the decision to send in troops by helicopter during stormy weather. Officials said the helicopters were ferrying soldiers to Lebanon as part of a troop rotation.

The crash occurred in rain and fog, but the military said the weather was not to blame. No one on the ground was reported hurt.

Albert Elfasi told The Associated Press he heard the helicopters approaching and then saw them collide in the sky above his house: ``Suddenly there was a collision, and a big explosion.″

Golan, the nurse, said she rushed over to help any survivors and heard ``very, very weak cries″ coming out of an empty building a helicopter crashed into. Struggling to see in the dark, Golan bent over the first body she found, ``but there was no pulse and everything was torn apart.″

Hours later, in light snowfall, a crane was still trying to fish pieces of helicopter wreckage from the rubble of the destroyed house, and soldiers scoured the site looking for more bodies and trying to dismantle the scattered ammunition. A dented propeller stuck out of the roof.

``Everyone that was in the helicopters was killed,″ Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, said in Tel Aviv.

Shahak said the dead included 65 troops on their way to bases in south Lebanon and eight air force crew members.

Israel’s worst previous accident was a 1977 helicopter crash that killed 54 people.

``This is a grave disaster, and a heavy heart goes out to the families of the victims,″ said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who canceled a trip today to meet with Jordan’s King Hussein.

Netanyahu received condolences from Hussein and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as well as President Clinton.

Funerals were expected throughout the day and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, scheduled a special session to honor the dead.

The crash comes as Israeli politicians increasingly question the wisdom of Israel’s policy in south Lebanon. Some urge that Israel withdraw its troops from the so-called ``security zone″ it established in 1985 to guard northern towns from guerrilla attacks.

More than 200 soldiers have died there since then, mostly in clashes with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.

Hezbollah guerrillas issued a statement expressing joy at the crash, Israel Radio said.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the lesson of Tuesday’s disaster was that Israel needed to pay the ``price for peace″ with Lebanon and Syria.

That was an apparent reference to his support for returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace. Such an agreement would win Syria’s backing for an end to the guerrilla war in Lebanon.

Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, a former general, said this week that Israel should withdraw because Israeli soldiers were too easy a target for Lebanese guerrillas. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai rejected the idea.

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