Syria accidentally shot down Russian military plane, Kremlin admits

Jon Sharman

A Russian reconnaissance plane that disappeared over the Mediterranean with 15 crew aboard was shot down in error by Syrian forces, the Kremlin has admitted as it blamed Israel for putting the aircraft in the firing line.

Russia said its Il-20 military aircraft was preparing to land at Hmeymim airbase in Latakia province when, at about 8pm GMT on Monday, it disappeared from radar some 20 miles off the Syrian coast.

Moscow’s defence ministry initially said the disappearance had taken place during French and Israeli missile strikes in the Latakia area of northwestern Syria that prompted an anti-aircraft barrage.

Later on Tuesday morning the Kremlin said allied Syrian forces had inadvertently downed the plane, but heaped the blame on Israel for “irresponsible actions” – saying the country had launched air strikes by four F-16 jets with just one minute’s warning, triggering the defensive response.

There was not enough time to get the Il-20 out of harm’s way, the RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying. The BBC quoted the ministry as saying: ”Using the Russian airplane as a cover, Israeli pilots put it in the line of fire coming from Syrian air defence systems.”

Defence minister Sergei Shoigu has told his Israeli counterpart Russia holds the Middle Eastern nation responsible, Russian television reported.

The Israeli military said in a statement that its jets were already within Israeli airspace when the incident took place, while offering condolences over the death of the Russian crew – but said it held the Syrian government “fully responsible.” It also blamed Iran and Hezbollah for what it described as an “unfortunate incident”.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to speak to Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

Israel and Russia have maintained a dedicated hotline to prevent their air forces clashing over Syria for several years, with Israeli officials having previously praised its effectiveness.

Following Monday’s loss of life, Russia’s defence ministry was reported as saying it reserved the right to take “appropriate measures” over what it called Israel’s deliberate provocation, adding it did not believe the Israeli military was unaware of the reconnaissance aircraft’s location.

Syrian state media reported the country’s coastal city of Latakia had come under attack by “enemy missiles” and that Syrian defence batteries had fired in response.

According to the BBC’s foreign media monitoring service, Syrian media reported explosions over Latakia shortly before 7pm.

Unnamed US officials told reporters that Washington also believed the electronic reconnaissance plane had been mistakenly shot down by Syria, Russia’s ally.

Moscow has been a key backer of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, during the brutal civil war that has raged since 2011.

Russian and Iranian support has helped Mr Assad attain near-victory in the conflict at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, including many civilians. United Nations reports said Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons numerous times, including at least three instances in 2018.

The disappearance of the Russian aircraft came after Vladimir Putin forged a surprise agreement with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that would forestall military operations to retake Idlib, the last rebel holdout.

Turkey has been involved in the war on the side of the opposition to Mr Assad’s regime, though has fought against Isis and Kurdish opposition forces.

Mr Erdogan called the agreement a “memorandum of understanding”. The two leaders agreed at a summit in Sochi, on the Black Sea, to set up a demilitarised area between rebel and government forces in Idlib.

Additional reporting by agencies