73 Israeli soldiers killed in helicopter collision

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The Independent Online
All 73 passengers, including 13 army officers and eight flight crew died last night when two giant Israeli troop-carrying helicopters collided over northern Israel on their way to an operation against Hizbollah guerrillas in Southern Lebanon.

The disaster, the worst in Israeli air force history, followed a day of heavy artillery and rocket exchanges between Israeli troops and the Shia militia in Israel's self-proclaimed security zone north of the Lebanese border.

One of the blazing American-made CH-53 helicopters fell on Sha'ar Yashuv, a smallholders' co-operative east of Kiryat Shmonah, destroying an empty guest house. The second helicopter came down on the neighbouring kibbutz of Dafna. There were no civilian casualties.

An eyewitness reported that one of the helicopters blew up in mid-air, the other when it hit the ground. Villagers rushed for cover, fearing that they were being attacked by Katyusha rockets from the Lebanese side of the border. The helicopters crashed in low cloud and stormy weather at about 7pm local time. Hundreds of army, police, ambulance and fire brigade rescuers were dragging out bodies. By 10pm the chief of Northern Command, Major-General Amiram Levin, confirmed that they had found no survivors.

At a subdued press conference early this morning the Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, announced the appointment of an inquiry commission headed by David Ivri, a former air force chief who served for 10 years as director general of the Defence Ministry.

The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, cancelled a visit he was due to make today to King Hussein of Jordan. The King and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, telephoned messages of sympathy. The crash capped a weekend of debate over whether Israeli troops should remain in Southern Lebanon, where they have been deployed since the bulk of an invading army withdrew in 1985.