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Military helicopters collide in Israel, killing scores

February 4, 1997
Web posted at: 5:15 p.m. EST (2215 GMT)

Latest developments:

SHAARYASHUV, Israel (CNN) -- Two military transport helicopters flying to Lebanon in fog and rain fatally collided in midair in an explosion of white light Tuesday.

About 70 soldiers died in the early evening crash in northern Israel, according to Israeli Maj. Gen. Amiram Levine. No survivors were found, Israeli officials said. No one was killed on the ground.

A statement issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office called the crash a "grave disaster."

Officials described the crash as the worst air disaster in Israel's military history. The worst previous accident was a 1977 helicopter crash that killed 54.

Helicopters carried explosives

The crash occurred around 7 p.m. (noon EST) in a farming community, just south of the border with Lebanon.

One of the helicopters crashed into a kibbutz, where an unoccupied guest house was damaged. The other helicopter went down in a cemetery.

Both helicopters were carrying ammunition and both exploded. Television pictures from the scene showed explosions on the ground.

Garish red lights lit up the faces of emergency workers carrying bodies away from the crash site. Convoys carried the dead to a nearby army base for identification, Israel Radio said.

The helicopters were taking troops to southern Lebanon as part of a troop rotation, the army said.

The exact number of people aboard the Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters was not disclosed. Regulations limit that type of helicopter from carrying more than 33 people, including crew, said government spokesman David Bar-Illan. That more were apparently aboard was not explained.

The army closed roads around the crash site. Military censors held up distribution of the report for more than two hours.

Netanyahu cancels Jordan trip

The prime minister cancelled a trip to meet with Jordan's King Hussein scheduled for Wednesday.

"This is an unimaginably heavy tragedy," Netanyahu said in a statement. "The hearts of the nation are with the victims. The whole country weeps today over the loss of these young fighters."

 
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