Police team dispatched to Ethiopia crash site to search for Israelis’ remains
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Police team dispatched to Ethiopia crash site to search for Israelis’ remains

Israeli delegation includes crime scene investigators, DNA analysts and dentists as local authorities say identification of victims may take 6 months

A boy looks as forensic investigators comb the ground for DNA evidence near a pile of twisted airplane debris at the crash site of an Ethiopian airways operated Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on March 16, 2019 at Hama Quntushele village near Bishoftu in Oromia region. (TONY KARUMBA / AFP)
A boy looks as forensic investigators comb the ground for DNA evidence near a pile of twisted airplane debris at the crash site of an Ethiopian airways operated Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on March 16, 2019 at Hama Quntushele village near Bishoftu in Oromia region. (TONY KARUMBA / AFP)

An Israeli police forensic team arrived in Ethiopia on Monday to help local authorities identify the remains of the two Israeli passengers on board the Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed outside Addis Ababa last week.

The Ethiopian Airlines flight bound for Nairobi crashed shortly after taking off from the capital last Sunday, killing all 157 people on board, including Israelis Shimon Re’em and Avraham Matsliah.

Israel immediately sent search and rescue team ZAKA to help locate Re’em and Matsliah’s remains, but Jerusalem complained that Ethiopian authorities were preventing the Israeli team from accessing the crash site, and were dragging their feet in identifying victims of Flight ET 302.

According to the Associated Press, forensic DNA work has begun on identifying the remains but it may take six months because of the state of the body parts.

Dagmawit Moges, Ethiopia’s transportation minister, said Saturday that Interpol and the UK-based Blake Emergency Services, hired by Ethiopian Airlines, will work with local police and health officials to identify the bodies.

Debris is loaded onto a truck at the crash site of the Ethiopian Airlines operated Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, at Hama Quntushele village in the Oromia region, on March 13, 2019. (TONY KARUMBA / AFP)

“Preparation for the identification process has already started and we will make sure that the post mortem investigation will start as soon as possible,” she said.

The US National Transportation Safety Board has sent about 16 members to assist the investigation, Moges said.

The nine-member Israeli team is being led by Superintendent Ilan Peer of the Criminal Investigation Division, and is joined by senior crime scene investigators, dentists, DNA analysts and an anthropologist from the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute.

Shimon Reem, killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10, 2019 (Courtesy)

“We are embarking on a national mission and are joining the other international teams in the field,” Peer told Channel 12 Sunday night. “Our mission is to identify the two Israelis who perished in the crash.”

Channel 12 said the police team left Israel with a half ton of equipment, including X-ray machines and protective gear.

A relative of a Jewish crash victim who asked not to named expressed frustration with the wait last week. The person told AFP that no funeral could be held until his remains were returned, and the six-month delay was distressing for his family.

“They are in immense pressure and remorse as it is, without waiting half a year,” the relative added.

Avraham Matsliah, 49, from Ma’ale Adumim, was killed in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight near Addis Ababa on March 10, 2019. (Facebook)

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said the police experts were dispatched with the approval of the Prime Minister’s Office to “help identify the victims of the disaster, from Israel and the other countries.” The ministry said Israel’s consul to Ethiopia, Opher Dach, was coordinating the visit and had secured the necessary permits.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, spoke to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as Jerusalem lobbied for ZAKA to be given access to the crash site.

The team of police forensic experts prepare to leave for Ethiopia on march 18, 2019. (Israel Police)

Members of the ZAKA team were eventually allowed access to the site but were not permitted to extract material.

There is still no indication why the Ethiopian Airlines plane went down in clear weather minutes into its March 10 flight to Nairobi. The crash was strikingly similar to that of a Lion Air jet in Indonesian seas last year, killing 189 people. Both accidents involved the Boeing 737 Max 8.

The black boxes from the Ethiopian craft were sent to France’s BEA air safety agency this week to determine the cause of the accident. The data from one of them, the cockpit voice recorder, has already been extracted and handed over to Ethiopian authorities, the BEA said Saturday.

Members of Israel’s Zaka rescue and recovery team Israel examine wreckage at the scene where the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff killing all 157 on board, south of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia on March 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

On Sunday, Moges told reporters that preliminary information gleaned from the flight data recorder showed “a clear similarity” to the Lion air crash.

Moges’s press conference came as thousands in Addis Ababa mourned the Ethiopian crash victims, accompanying 17 empty caskets draped in the national flag through the streets of the capital.

The service was held a day after officials began delivering bags of earth to family members instead of the remains of their loved ones because the identification process is expected to take such a long time. The victims hailed from 35 countries.

Family members confirmed they were given a 1 kilogram (2.2 pound) sack of scorched earth taken from the crash site.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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