Russia blames Israel for shooting down of plane off Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP) Credit: AP/Press Association Images

A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was brought down by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean, killing all 15 people on board, the Russian defence ministry said.

It blamed Israel for the crash, saying the plane was caught in the crossfire as four Israeli fighters attacked targets in north-western Syria.

The Russian military said that the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was hit 22 miles off the coast late on Monday as it was returning to its home base nearby.

“The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian defence,” Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, later on Tuesday to say that Israel is “fully to blame” for the deaths, the ministry said.

The military said Israel did not warn it of its operation over Latakia province until one minute before the strike, which did not give the Russian plane enough time to escape.

Both the Israeli military and Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined comment on the Russian claim.

The Russian Defence Ministry said a recovery operation in the Mediterranean Sea is under way and that it has already located the wreckage in the sea and has retrieved some bodies and some fragments of the plane.

The Kremlin sounded cautious in the aftermath of the attack, refusing to comment on a potential row with Israel.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that the Kremlin is “analysing the situation” and does not want to speak further at this point.

For several years, Israel and Russia have maintained a special hotline to prevent their air forces from clashing in the skies over Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.

Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and it has two military bases in the country, including one close to the Mediterranean coast.

Russia’s dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 in support of the Syrian government, after a year of airstrikes by the US and its coalition partners against the Islamic State group, increased the threat of dangerous confrontations in the skies over Syria.

Turkey’s troops are also on the ground in northern Syria and are patrolling the skies over the region as Ankara seeks to increase its influence there and curb the expansion of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory.

Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But it has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes against Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah.

Israel has also acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times. Israel has warned that it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in postwar Syria.

Throughout the fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained continuous contact with Russia. Mr Netanyahu frequently travels to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syria issue.

Later, the Israeli military expressed sorrow for the deaths of the Russian aircrew, while also blaming the militant Hezbollah group and Iran for the incident.

The military issued a statement saying that Syria’s government is “fully responsible” for the shooting down of the Russian military aircraft and that Iran and Hezbollah are also “accountable for this unfortunate incident”.

It said Israeli jets had targeted a Syrian weapons facility and were already back within Israeli airspace when the incident happened.