At the request of the Djiboutian government, the US military has halted its air operations in the East African country, a critical location in the fight against terrorism, following two accidents involving military aircraft, three defense officials told CNN.
On Tuesday, a US Marine Corps Harrier jet crashed at the country’s international airport. The pilot was able to eject and was treated at a medical facility but has since been released according to several officials. Later the same day, a Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter sustained “minor damage” while landing in Arta Beach. While the helicopter’s crew was uninjured, the officials told CNN that the US Navy is investigating reports that two civilians were injured by debris from the helicopter’s rotor wash. However, the officials said that US Navy investigators have not been granted access to the alleged victims by local police.
Following those accidents, the Djiboutian government sent the US a diplomatic notice requesting that all flying operations be halted, the officials said.
The US decision to halt air operations has also led the military to cancel Alligator Dagger, the military exercise that both aircraft were participating in.
“US air operations in Djibouti are on hold and US Naval Forces Central Command has canceled the remainder of exercise Alligator Dagger in response to two separate aviation incidents in Djibouti on April 3, 2018,” Cdr. Bill Urban, a spokesman for US Naval Forces Central Command, told CNN.
Urban said that both the Harrier and CH-53 incidents “are currently under a joint investigation.”
There are about 4,000 US personnel in Djibouti, based at Camp Lemonnier, and US forces there support military operations against the terrorist group al Shabaab in neighboring Somalia. The grounding of aircraft could affect both counterterrorism operations in Somalia, such as drone strikes, and support to Camp Lemonnier the officials said.
Two of the officials told CNN that the US military and the State Department are working with the government of Djibouti to get approval for flights on a case-by-case basis to ensure that support to both Somalia operations and Camp Lemonnier continue.
The US military places a lot of importance on its ability to base forces in Djibouti given its critically strategic location near countries like Somalia and Yemen.
But US officials have recently expressed concern about the growing influence of China in Djibouti, noting its recent establishment of a military base there as well as close Chinese economic links with the country.