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Israeli air exercises go on despite Romania deaths

    The Israeli Air Force will continue carrying out long-range exercises abroad, despite the helicopter crash last week in Romania in which six Israeli aircrew and one Romanian liaison officer were killed.

    Exercise "Blue Skies" was scheduled to take place for two weeks over Romania, but was terminated last Monday when an IAF CH-53 Sea Stallion transport helicopter crashed in the Carpathian Mountains killing all seven on board.

    Due to the inaccessibility of the crash site, it took Romanian troops and members of the IDF's elite Airborne Rescue Unit over 48 hours to remove the bodies, and a further 24 hours for the members of the Chaplaincy Corps to identify them. They were flown back to Israel for burial on Friday morning.

    "These exercises over unfamiliar terrain, far from home are invaluable," said Deputy Air Force Commander, Brigadier General Nimrod Shefer, "and we will continue with them."

    Over the past few years, the IAF has greatly expanded the number of foreign training deployments and joint exercises with other air forces. This year, in addition to the one in Romania, Israeli combat jets have trained in, among other countries, the United States, Italy and Greece.

    In the past, the main foreign country where the IAF pilots trained was Turkey, which had a number of unique advantages; a large airspace relatively close to Israel and joint borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, all potential targets. But over the past 18 months, following the Gaza operation, ties with Turkey have deteriorated and the number of joint exercises dramatically reduced.

    "There are still a large number of countries in Europe, Nato members, which are interested in flying with us," assures a senior IAF officer. "They want to share our operational experience."

    Despite the IAF's prestige, its commander, Major General Ido Nehushtan, said recently that he is aware that his pilots have not experienced a major operation against a well-equipped enemy since the attack on the Syrian anti-aircraft defence batteries in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in 1982.

    The deployments abroad enable the pilots of the jet fighters, and search and rescue helicopters, to practise long-range missions over unfamiliar terrain, and flying against other air forces using different tactics.

    Though the pilots never speak about it in public, the implication is clear: these are the conditions they will have to contend with in any potential attack of Iran's nuclear installations.

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