EL-NAKHL, Egypt – Nine foreign peacekeepers, including eight French and one Canadian, were killed Sunday when a French plane attached to the Sinai's multinational peacekeeping force crashed in a remote, mountainous area, local police and the French government said.
Capt. Mohammed Badr, a police officer in Sinai, said the crash occurred in the middle of the vast Sinai Peninsula near the village of el-Thamad, about 50 miles southeast of a town called el-Nakhl. He reported that one of the plane's wings hit a truck on its way down, but the driver escaped unharmed.
The French government released a statement Sunday confirming the deaths. The statement quoted French President Jacques Chirac as saying he "sends the families and loved ones of the victims his most sincere condolences and expresses deep compassion" for their loss.
It appeared the Canadian-made DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter tried to land on a highway but clipped a truck and then crashed nearby, said Normand St. Pierre, a spokesman for the Multinational Force & Observers, an independent force created by Egypt and Israel to monitor their border in the Sinai after a 1979 peace deal.
The crash wiped out more than half of the 15-member French contingent and destroyed the mission's sole fixed-wing aircraft, St. Pierre said. A "higher than normal" load of passengers and crew were aboard the aircraft at the time of the crash because it was on a training mission.
"The French government will have to decide whether it wants to rebuild the unit and send in a new plane," St. Pierre said. "It's a great loss. Everyone is shocked. We can do a lot with helicopters in the meantime, but we can't reconstitute the unit."
The peacekeeping force includes troops from the United States, France, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Fiji, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand and Uruguay, plus a few officers from Norway.
Capt. Ihab Moheildin, the air control officer at Cairo International Airport, said the Twin Otter took off in sunny, clear weather at 7:46 a.m. local time from El Gorah base — the northern headquarters of the peacekeeping mission — on its way to St. Catherine's airport in the southern Sinai Peninsula.
He said the airport lost contact with the plane at 9:15 a.m. after receiving a distress signal, indicating a possible mechanical failure. The plane then crashed into a mountain, according to Moheildin.
Ahmad Attallah, a truck driver who was driving about 40-kilometers south of el-Nakhl told The Associated Press he saw the plane on its way down.
"I looked up and saw a small plane with a trail of flame and smoke flying at a low altitude and then it disappeared and I heard an explosion," he said.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
"We lost air traffic communications, but as far as I know there was no report of problems," St. Pierre said.