French peacekeeper dies with six colleagues in Sinai helicopter crash

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Seven international observers were killed in a helicopter crash in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on Thursday. Among those on board, a French and a Czech national and five Americans. The sole survivor has been evacuated to an Israeli hospital. A mechanical failure has been blamed for the accident.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss on November 12, 2020, of seven of our uniformed military colleagues from three countries who died in a helicopter crash during a routine mission," the Force multinationale d'observateurs (MFO) peacekeeping force said late Thursday.

"A full investigation of the cause of the crash, which appears to be mechanical in nature, has been launched," the peacekeeping force said.

Egypt's foreign ministry expressed its condolences "as a government and people" in a late Thursday statement confirming the cause of the crash was a mechanical failure near Tiran island.

Egyptian officials from the South Sinai governor's office would not provide further details to AFP on the exact crash site, nor would the MFO.

The Czech army said in a statement that "the cause of the crash was a technical defect", also identifying the Czech victim as sergeant Michaela Ticha.

Alternative to UN mission

The MFO was set up by Israel and Egypt to supervise parts of their 1979 historic peace treaty after the United Nations did not approve a peacekeeping force for the Sinai.

It was established as an alternative to a UN mission, but has consistently had significant international backing, notably from the United States.

Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is facing an insurgency affiliated with the Islamic State group in the north of the region, while the south boasts touristic resort towns by the Red Sea, near where the crash happened.

More than 930 suspected militants have been killed in the North Sinai region since a security mission began in 2018, along with dozens of security personnel, according to official figures.

US President-elect Joe Biden tweeted his "deep condolences to the loved ones of the peacekeepers, who died on Tiran Island."

Strategic Tiran island, along with Sanafir, in the Red Sea was officially ceded to Saudi Arabia in 2017 as part of a maritime agreement.

Tributes to victims

The sole survivor of the crash was medically evacuated by the Israeli Defence Forces, the MFO added.

Chris Miller, acting US Secretary of Defense, said in a statement he was "deeply saddened" by the loss of lives.

Jonathan Cohen, the US ambassador to Egypt, paid tribute to the victims as well.

"These six Americans, one Frenchman, and one Czech epitomized the noble spirit of preserving peace between our partners Israel and Egypt," he said on Twitter.

The MFO currently numbers more than 1,100 troops, including from Australia, the United States, Canada and France, and receives funding from Egypt, Israel and the US.

The force's website lists only one French member in its contingent, a liaison officer.