Five U.S. Army Special Operations troops died after a refueling “mishap” with a helicopter over the eastern Mediterranean Sea, defense officials said Sunday, in an incident that U.S. officials have handled with extra care as the Biden administration attempts to keep the war in Gaza from expanding throughout the region.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the troops were in the region as part of the Pentagon’s broader contingency planning for the war, which includes preparing for potential evacuations out of Israel and Lebanon. The helicopter went down off the coast of southeastern Cyprus, according to one of the officials and warnings to aviators published Saturday while a search-and-rescue operation, now concluded, was underway.
U.S. European Command (EUCOM), which oversees military operations in the area, first disclosed the mishap Saturday, though it did not clarify which branch of the military was involved. The New York Times first reported the affiliation of the service members killed.
“Out of respect for the families affected, we will not release further information on the personnel involved at this time,” a Saturday statement said. “The cause of the training incident is currently under investigation. However, we can definitively say that the aircraft sortie was purely related to training and there are no indications of hostile activity.”
In a statement to the Washington Post on Sunday, EUCOM said it would not be releasing information about the type of aircraft or any details about the personnel involved in the crash until 24 hours after it had notified next of kin. The statement added that the aircraft crashed after “a mishap during routine air refueling training.”
The Pentagon has surged forces into the region as a show of force, and a demonstration of solidarity with Israel, designed to discourage adversaries such as Iran from further inflaming tensions. As part of that effort, the United States has deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups, each comprising about 7,500 troops, to the region.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin said in a statement Sunday that he and the Pentagon “mourn the tragic loss of five U.S. service members.”
“We will remember their service and their sacrifice,” he said.
President Biden said he and first lady Jill Biden were “praying for the families and friends who have lost a precious loved one – a piece of their soul.”
“Our entire nation shares their grief,” Biden said in a news release that highlighted the fact that it is Veterans Day weekend. “When we pause to honor our nation’s veterans, we once more affirm the sacred obligation we bear to those who volunteer to serve our nation as well as their families, caregivers, and survivors. We pray for the families of all our fallen warriors today and every day.”