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Russia blames Israel for downing of military plane over Syria

Israeli military expresses sorrow over deaths of 15 Russians, but says Assad and Iran are to blame for the incident
Russia's defence ministry says the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was brought down by Syrian anti-aircraft batteries during Israeli attack (AFP)

Russia has accused Israel of a hostile provocation and threatened retaliation after Moscow blamed it for indirectly causing a military plane to be shot down near Syria's Mediterranean coast.

In response, the Israeli army denied any responsibility for the lost plane and said it held Syria, along with "Iran and the Hezbollah terror organisation accountable for this unfortunate incident".

Russia's defence ministry, in a statement reported by Russian news agencies, said the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft, with 15 crew onboard, was brought down by anti-aircraft batteries of Moscow's ally, Syria, in a friendly fire incident.

But the ministry said it held Israel responsible because Israeli fighter jets were mounting air attacks on Syrian targets at the time and had only given Moscow one minute's warning.

The ministry said the Israeli pilots had put the Russian aircraft in the path of Syrian air defence systems.

We reserve the right to take commensurate measures in response

- Russian defence ministry spokesperson

The defence ministry said 15 people were killed when the Russian plane was brought down as it came in to land at the Hmeymim air base in western Syria, which is controlled by Russian forces.

"As a result of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military, 15 Russian service personnel perished," Interfax news agency quoted Russian defence ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov as saying.

"This absolutely does not correspond to the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right to take commensurate measures in response."

Konashenkov described the Israeli military's actions as hostile and an act of provocation, Interfax reported.

Later Russian President Vladimir Putin dialed down the rhetoric, saying the plane was shot down in a chain of tragic and chance circumstances.

"It looks most likely in this case that it was a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft. But, without any doubt we need to seriously get to the bottom of what happened," Putin told reporters in Hungary, adding that the security of his forces will be investigated.

'Jets already within Israeli airspace'

Israel said a raid by its fighter jets late on Monday had targeted a Syrian military facility where weapons manufacturing systems were "about to be transferred on behalf of Iran" to Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Israel also disputed Moscow's assertion that it had used the downed Russian aircraft as cover while it carried out the strike.

"During the strike against the target in Latakia, the Russian plane that was then hit was not within the area of the operation," a military statement said.

It added that "when the Syrian army launched the missiles that hit the Russian plane, [Israeli] jets were already within Israeli airspace."

"Extensive and inaccurate Syrian anti-aircraft [surface-to-air missile] fire caused the Russian plane to be hit and downed," the statement said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said he had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone and told him that "Israel is determined to stop Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, and the attempts by Iran, which calls for the destruction of Israel, to transfer to Hezbollah lethal weaponry [to be used] against Israel."

The Israeli leader offered Putin "all necessary information" to investigate the incident, his office said.

An Israeli envoy to Russia has been summoned to Moscow's foreign ministry, a Russian spokesperson said. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the Israeli deputy ambassador in Moscow, Keren Cohen-Gat, had been summoned, although it declined to comment on the contents of the meeting.

Earlier, the Russian defence ministry had said the turbo-prop plane had vanished from radar screens over Syria at the same time as Israeli and French forces were launching missile strikes on targets in Syria.

The ministry said four Israeli F-16 jets had attacked Syrian infrastructure in the province of Latakia and that rockets had been launched from the French navy's frigate the Auvergne, which was in the area at the time.

Around the time the plane was shot down, the Syrian coastal city of Latakia came under attack from "enemy missiles", and defence batteries responded, Syrian state media reported.

A US official had earlier told Reuters that Washington believed the aircraft was inadvertently shot down by anti-aircraft artillery operated by Syrian government forces. France denied any involvement.

US President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that Syria likely shot down the Russian plane.

"It sounds to me and it seems to me based on a review of the facts that Syria shot down a Russian plane. And I understand about 14 people were killed and that’s a very sad thing but that’s what happens," Trump said at a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

'Two fighters killed' in Latakia

Syria's official SANA news agency said that the Technical Industry Institution in the state-controlled city of Latakia had been targeted by missile attacks on Monday.

"Our air defences are countering hostile missiles coming from the sea towards the city of Latakia, and a number of them have been intercepted," a source told the state news agency.

State-run Ikhbariya TV said 10 people were injured in the attack. Eight were discharged shortly after being admitted to a nearby hospital.

A UK-based activist group said that two fighters had been killed.

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Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that "violent explosions were caused by missiles targeting ammunition depots in the Technical Industry Institution".

The downing of the plane came just hours after Russia said there would be no assault against Syria's Idlib as the presidents of Russia and Turkey agreed to create a "demilitarised zone" in the rebel-held province.

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