US cancels military exercise, grounds aircraft in Djibouti after crashes

US cancels military exercise, grounds aircraft in Djibouti after crashes
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U.S. air operations in Djibouti are on hold and an ongoing military exercise in the country has been canceled following two aircraft crashes there in a day, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command announced Thursday.

The flight operations were halted in agreement with the Djiboutian government, while the exercise was canceled at the discretion of the U.S. commander, Joint Staff Director Kenneth McKenzie added during a Pentagon briefing.

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“It is not unusual,” McKenzie said. “You want to step back, take a look, make sure, for reasons that have been amply brought out in the back and forth here, that you’re not doing something wrong as your aircraft fly. So that’s just a reasonable precaution by the commander on the ground to make sure that we’re not doing something that we can fix.”

Djibouti is home to the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. The base, Camp Lemonnier, holds about 4,000 U.S. troops and serves as a launch point for operations in Somalia and Yemen.

On Tuesday afternoon local time, an AV-8B Harrier jet from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit crashed at Djibouti Ambouli International Airport. The pilot ejected and was evaluated and released by the expeditionary medical facility at Camp Lemonnier, according to the Navy.

Hours later, a Marine CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter from the same unit suffered structural damage during a landing at an approved exercise landing zone at Arta Beach, Djibouti. The aircrew was not injured, while the helicopter remains at the landing site pending more assessment, officials said.

“Both incidents are currently under a joint investigation,” U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said in a news release.

The canceled exercise is known as Alligator Dagger, an annual amphibious exercise off the coast of Djibouti.

Other operations in Naval Forces Central Command's area of responsibility have not been affected by the aircraft incidents, officials said.

“Routine operations for other units assigned to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command are unaffected by this cancellation, and U.S. Naval personnel continue to conduct maritime security operations throughout the region,” Navy central command said. 

The crashes in Djibouti come at the same time as several fatal accidents in the United States. Four Marines died in a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crash Tuesday in Southern California, and an Air Force Thunderbirds pilot was killed in an F-16 crash Wednesday in Nevada.