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After Search, US Confirms Five Soldiers Dead in Heli Crash off Cyprus

An MH-60 helicopter refuels from a special operations transport plane (file image courtesy U.S. Army)
An MH-60 helicopter refuels from a special operations transport plane (file image courtesy U.S. Army)

Published Nov 12, 2023 10:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Saturday, the U.S. military launched a large-scale search and rescue operation in the Eastern Mediterranean after a helicopter went down in waters between Cyprus and Lebanon.

Aircraft tracking data showed an aerial SAR effort at a position about 30 nautical miles to the southeast of the port of Larnaca, about a third of the distance from Cyprus to Beirut. A U.S. Navy Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft orbited in the area, and a notice to mariners was issued for a search operation at the same position (approximately 34.5 N / 034.1 E). Surface vessels also joined in the search, according to U.S. European Command. A C-17 Globemaster cargo plane was also dispatched to Cyprus for preparation for a medevac mission. 

In a later statement, the Pentagon confirmed that an aircraft had gone down during a "routine air refueling mission as part of military training." All five personnel on board were killed, according to U.S. European Command. 

“Out of respect for the affected families, and in accordance with Department of Defense policy, the identities of the crewmembers are being withheld until 24 hours after next of kin notifications," EUCOM said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the fallen."

Officials told the New York Times that the personnel were members of a special operations team, and that the aircraft was an MH-60 helicopter, a U.S. Army standard. The Pentagon has dispatched several commando teams to Cyprus to prepare for hostage rescue contingencies; the terrorist group Hamas is holding approximately 250 hostages from its deadly raid into Israel on October 7, and about one dozen of the captives are U.S. citizens. The aircrew members were attached to the U.S. Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, according to the Times; the unit is often assigned to the insertion and extraction of commando units and flies a long-range, refueling-capable variant of the MH-60. 

"[We] mourn the loss of 5 American service members who died when their aircraft crashed in the Mediterranean Sea during a routine training mission," said President Joe Biden in a statement. "Our service members put their lives on the line for our country every day.  They willingly take risks to keep the American people safe and secure. And their daily bravery and selflessness is an enduring testament to what is best in our nation."

The U.S. Navy and its NATO partner services have built up a substantial force concentration in and around the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, the French helicopter carrier Tonnerre, and two Italian frigates.