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The investigation into Monday's helicopter crash that claimed the lives of two pilots took an unexpected turn on Tuesday when investigators began to consider the possibility that the incident may have been caused by Israeli fire. The option being considered was a missile fired by an MLRS artillery battery struck the craft.
A high-ranking IAF officer told The Jerusalem Post that the IDF was also checking into the possibility that the helicopter was shot down by Hizbullah operatives during fighting along the northern border. The IAF has said that Hizbullah might be in possession of shoulder-to-air missiles capable of downing aircraft. However, the option has been discounted by army investigators because there was no indication that a rocket was launched from Lebanon at the aircraft.
In the second helicopter crash in less than a week, two IAF pilots were killed on Monday morning when their Apache Longbow attack helicopter crash-landed and burst into flames north of Safed near the Lebanese border.
The names of the two IAF pilots killed in the crash were released late Monday: Col. Tzvi Luft, 42, from Kibbutz Hogla and Lt. Tom Farkash, 23, from Caesarea.
The crash sparked a huge blaze that engulfed a hilltop orchard overlooking the town of Rehaniya, about four kilometers south of the Lebanese border. Firefighters struggled to contain the flames to allow rescue workers to reach the burning helicopter.
Commander of the IAF's Air Division Brig.-Gen. Yohanan Locker said during a briefing Monday that the cause of the crash was a mystery. "No fire was seen coming from Lebanon," he said. "The chance that the helicopter was shot down is slim due to the geographical conditions of the terrain as well as the fact that there was another helicopter in the formation before it that was meant to thwart such an attempt."
Called Saraf (Seraph) by the IAF, the Longbow, manufactured by Boeing, is said to be the best attack helicopter in the world, possessing highly advanced radar, firing and maneuvering abilities. Since the beginning of Operation Change of Direction, IAF attack helicopters - including the Saraf - have carried out some 700 sorties over Lebanon.
The IAF officer rejected initial reports that the helicopter got entangled in an electrical cable, saying that the aircraft was flying at a high altitude, far above electrical wires.
While the officer said that the IDF was looking into the possibility that the Longbow was shot down by Hizbullah anti-aircraft fire, the more likely possibility, he said, was that the crash was caused by a technical failure. The helicopter, he said, was flying together in a formation with another helicopter and was in the midst of providing air cover for ground troops operating in southern Lebanon.
The officer added that there did not appear to be a connection between the crash and last week's accident when two Apache attack helicopters collided over northern Israel. Maj. Ran Yehoshua Kochava, 37, was killed and three pilots were injured - one critically - in that collision.