A delegation of some 130 Israeli conscripted and reservist soldiers took off for Brazil on Sunday morning to assist the South American country in the search for the hundreds still missing after a dam collapsed two days ago, killing dozens and with scores more feared dead.
In addition to Israeli military search-and-rescue specialists and medical officers, who are the majority in the delegation, members of the Israeli Navy’s Yaltam scuba unit were also brought in to assist in the efforts, as the military expected a significant amount of underwater missions in the flooded region, army spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Sunday.
The dam, at a mining site operated by the Brazilian mining company Vale in the country’s southwest, ruptured Friday, sending millions of tons of sludge downstream, covering the city of Brumadinho.
At least 37 people have been confirmed killed by the dam burst, with hundreds more still unaccounted for and presumed dead, in the Minas Gerais state, according to Brazilian officials.
“Following a situational assessment and discussions with local officials, it emerged that search and rescue is the main need at the Brazilian disaster site,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.
The army said the search-and-rescue teams would use radar, underwater sonar, cellular detection systems and drones to locate the missing people.
The 14-hour flight to Brazil was made via a chartered El Al airplane, which took off from Ben Gurion International Airport on Sunday morning. Preparations for the trip began on Saturday, following a conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
The Israeli troops participating in the delegation were given the necessary vaccinations, the army said.
Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, Yosef Shelly, will accompany the soldiers.
Ties between Israel and Brazil have warmed with the election of Bolsonaro, who said earlier this month that he will move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. The Brazilian president’s confirmation of the move came after Netanyahu visited the South American country for Bolsonaro’s January 1 investiture.
Israel regularly offers aid and search and rescue help to countries both friendly and hostile, though this appeared to be the first-ever aid delegation to Brazil.
Bolsonaro appeared to thank the IDF for sending the delegation on Twitter, replying with a “thumbs up” emoji to the military’s tweet about the operation.
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) January 26, 2019
Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, who is also a politician, tweeted out “thanks during this difficult time.”
“Israel does this because it is a friendly country. It was always around, but was always mistreated by former governments,” he wrote on Twitter. “Excuse me, but for all the bad guys on duty, you just have keep quiet and look how much good comes of this approach,” he wrote.
Israel faz isso porque é um país amigo. Sempre esteve ali, mas sempre foi mal tratado pelos antigos governantes por razões ideológicas. Desculpem-me, mas para os mal intencionados de plantão só resta ficar quieto e olhar quanta coisa boa vem com essa aproximação. Shalom! ???????????????????? https://t.co/jkMoQ37QwS
— Eduardo Bolsonaro (@BolsonaroSP) January 27, 2019
The tons of sludge from the burst dam collapsed bridges and covered great swaths of land with bright brown mud in Minas Gerais.
Many of the victims of the disaster were Vale employees, hundreds of whom were working in the area at the time the dam burst, the company said.
“The principal victims were our own workers,” Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman told a news conference Friday evening. He said a restaurant was buried by the mud at lunchtime.
Bolsonaro said he lamented the accident and sent three cabinet ministers to the area.
“We will take all the possible steps to minimize the suffering of families and victims,” Bolsonaro said in a speech, which he posted on Twitter.
The far-right leader had campaigned on promises to jump-start Brazil’s economy, in part by deregulating mining and other industries. Environmental groups and activists said the latest spill underscored a lack of regulation.
The rivers of mining waste raised fears of widespread contamination.