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US shoots down armed drone in Syria, after Russian threats

Russia has said the US downing of a pro-Syrian drone on Tuesday shows "complicity with terrorism"
Opposition members of Ahmad Jarba's Syrian Elite Forces, fighting alongside the SDF, on the eastern front Raqqa during an offensive to retake the city, 14 June 2017 (AFP)

The US on Tuesday shot down an Iranian-made drone in Syria, in a move that saw Russia accuse Washington of "complicity with terrorism" 

The unmanned, armed drone was advancing on US forces, and was shot at after it "displayed hostile intent and advanced on coalition forces" according to a statement carried by Reuters. 

A US military official told AFP that an F-15 Strike Eagle jet destroyed the Shahed 129 drone around 12:30am local time northeast of the At-Tanf garrison, which is close to the Jordanian border.

"They were threatening our forces on the ground," the official said. "Their course was on a run toward our folks to drop a munition on them."

Earlier this month, the US shot down another Shahed 129 drone, also operated by pro-government forces. 

The strike comes amid rising tensions with Russia, following the US downing of a Syrian military jet over the weekend, and Moscow’s subsequent threats to US-led coalition aircraft.

Responding to the downing of the drone, Russia accused the US of "complicity with terrorism" on Tuesday.

"In Syria this type of strike is akin to complicity with terrorism," Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency.

Ryabkov's intervention comes after Russia said on Monday that any aircraft from the US-led coalition west of the Euphrates river in Syria would be viewed as potential targets, and would be tracked with missile systems.

Amid the US strikes and Russian anger, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday that he hoped that heightened tensions between the United States and Russia in the skies over Syria will not lead to an escalation of an already "dramatic conflict."

"I strongly hope that there will be a de-escalation of the situation because these kinds of incidents can be very dangerous in a conflict situation in which there are so many actors and in which the situation is so complex on the ground," Guterres told a news conference.

Sunday marked the first time during the six-year war that the US has brought down a Syrian military jet.

Moscow, which has condemned the American step, said it was immediately pulling out of a joint de-confliction agreement with Washington, designed to avoid collisions.

Meanwhile, Australia announced that it is suspending air strikes in Syria on Tuesday.
Russia to track US planes as 'targets' as Syria tensions rise
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"As a precautionary measure, Australian Defence Force (ADF) strike operations into Syria have temporarily ceased," Australia's Department of Defence said in a statement on Tuesday.

But the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) said it had no plans to do the same. “Air operations continue and de-confliction measures are ongoing,” a spokesperson told MEE.

De-confliction measures ongoing

“We call on Russia to continue to use these measures. We want all parties to focus on the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria,” the MoD spokesperson said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Moscow accused Washington of failing to honour the security cooperation pact by not informing it of the decision to shoot down the Syrian plane despite Russian aircraft being airborne at the same time.

Washington hit back, saying it would "do what we can to protect our interests."

The US Central Command said the downed Syrian military jet had been dropping bombs near US-backed SDF forces in the town of al-Rasafa, outside of Raqqa.

The town is just west of the Euphrates, but most of the US-led coalition’s focus against IS has been east of the symbolic river.

The Euphrates river is seen from the window of a SyrianAir passenger plane flying over the Raqqa dam in 2013 (AFP)

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the United States was working to restore the "deconfliction" communications line with Russia.

Marine General Joseph Dunford said there were still communications between a US air operations center in Qatar and Russian forces on the ground in Syria, adding: "We'll work diplomatically and military in the coming hours to re-establish deconfliction."

Australia confirmed that operations in Iraq would continue.

"ADF personnel are closely monitoring the air situation in Syria and a decision on the resumption of ADF air operations in Syria will be made in due course," Australia's Department of Defence said.

"Australian Defence Force protection is regularly reviewed in response to a range of potential threats," it said. 

The Syrian government has said that the US move “reveals with no doubt the truth about the US support of terrorism,” according to state media.

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