Moscow accuses Israeli pilots of hiding behind Russian plane

Russia blames Israel after Syria downs plane while trying to repel attack

Russian defense chief tells Liberman that Israel wholly responsible for aircraft with 15 aboard being shot down by Syrian S-200 missile, says Moscow reserves right to respond

An Ilyushin Il-20M reconnaissance plane takes off at Kubinka air force base near Moscow, Russia, on February 19, 2014. (Artyom Anikeev/iStock/Getty Images)
An Ilyushin Il-20M reconnaissance plane takes off at Kubinka air force base near Moscow, Russia, on February 19, 2014. (Artyom Anikeev/iStock/Getty Images)

Russia on Tuesday blamed Israel while confirming that Syrian air defenses inadvertently shot down one of its military planes the night before, saying Israeli pilots used the reconnaissance aircraft as cover for an attack on a Syrian facility.

The Russian military said the Ilyushin IL-20, with 15 aboard, was downed by a Syrian S-200 missile, which had been triggered by an alleged Israeli airstrike on a Syrian facility near Latakia.

According to Russia, at approximately 10 p.m., four Israeli F-16 fighter jets approached western Syria from the sea and fired dozens of missiles at the facility, a Syrian defense ministry subsidiary with ties to the country’s chemical weapons and missile programs.

The Russian military accused the Israeli Air Force of deliberately using the Ilyushin IL-20 electronic surveillance plane, which was flying nearby, as a shield for its attack, putting the aircraft in the path of the incoming Syrian air defenses.

This account could not be immediately confirmed. The Israeli military refused to comment

“We consider these provocative actions by Israel as hostile. Fifteen Russian military service members have died because of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military. This is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the Russian-Israeli partnership,” the Russian military said in a statement, according to Russia Today, a Kremlin-linked news outlet.

The Israeli and Russian militaries maintain what they call a “deconfliction mechanism,” which is meant to coordinate their activities in Syria in order to avoid incidents like this one. Until Monday night, these efforts had largely succeeded in preventing direct or indirect clashes since Russia became more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war three years ago.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, left, and his team meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu and his team on May 31, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Tuesday morning, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman that Israel had failed to warn Moscow of its plans in advance, informing them less than a minute before the strikes, which did not leave sufficient time to get the reconnaissance aircraft out of harm’s way.

In the phone call, Shoigu told Liberman that Russia “reserves the right to further countermeasures” against Israel, according to the state-run Interfax news outlet.

Shoigu added that the “actions of the Israeli Defense Ministry fail to match the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership,” according to Interfax.

“Israel was repeatedly asked not to deliver strikes on Syria endangering Russian personnel,” Interfax quoted Shoigu as telling Liberman.

Liberman’s office confirmed that the minister had spoken with Shoigu, but said it “would not comment beyond that.”

One of the sole Israeli officials to comment on the matter was Likud MK and fighter pilot Yoav Kisch, who denied that Israel was culpable.

Illustrative: An Israel Air Force F-16 takes off. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

“The attempt by Russia to define Israel as responsible for the downing of the Russian plane must be opposed. The only person responsible is the one who pressed the button that fired the missile that shot down the plane,” he wrote on Twitter.

It was not immediately clear how the downing of the Ilyushin Il-20 plane would affect the ongoing cooperation between Israel and Russia in Syria.

A Kremlin spokesperson said the situation was being “analyzed” in light of the incident, according to Interfax.

The Russian government spokesperson refused to comment when asked if Russian President Vladmir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would speak about the matter.

On Tuesday, Russian officials displayed a rarely seen level of hostility toward the Israeli military.

Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told the state-run TASS news agency that Israel knew the reconnaissance plane was there and used it as cover to carry out the airstrike.

An S-200 air defense missile being paraded in Kaliningrad, Russia on May 9, 2008. (Dmitry Shchukin/iStock/Getty Images)

“By using the Russian plane as a cover the Israeli air pilots made it vulnerable to Syrian air defense fire. As a result, the Ilyushin-20, its reflective surface being far greater than that of F-16, was downed by a missile launched with the S-200 system,” Konashenkov said.

The S-200 air defense system is manufactured by Russia and sold to Syria. In February, the same type of system was used to shoot down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet that was taking part in airstrikes in Syria in response to an Iranian drone that was flown into Israeli airspace from a Syrian air base earlier in the day.

On Monday night, Syria’s state media reported that a state company for technical industries was bombed, likely by Israel, triggering Syrian air defenses.

Two people were killed in the strike and eight more were injured, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Russian state news earlier said the IL-20 disappeared over the Mediterranean on Monday evening as it was returning to Latakia province at the same time as the suspected strike by Israel, and that concurrently France was also firing rockets nearby.

“Connection has been lost with the crew of a Russian Il-20 plane over the Mediterranean Sea 35 kilometers from the Syrian coast as it was returning to the Hmeimim airbase,” the Russian defense ministry said, adding that communications were lost at the time of the suspected Israeli attack.

A Pentagon spokesman said the United States was not involved and declined to provide further details.

“The missiles were not fired by the US military and we have nothing further at this time,” he said.

A French army spokesman also denied any involvement after Russia accused it of taking part in the strike.

Russia has until now mostly turned a blind eye to alleged Israeli strikes on Syrian and Iranian military facilities in the country, despite being allied with Damascus and Tehran.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspect a military parade during their visit to the Russian air base in Hmeimim in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia, December 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP)

Israel is alleged to have been behind a series of airstrikes mainly targeting Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria that have joined the country’s war fighting alongside the government. Israel rarely acknowledges attacks inside Syria, but has said it will use military action to prevent weapons transfers to its enemies.

Earlier this month, an Israeli military official said the Jewish state has struck over 200 Iranian targets in Syria over the past 18 months.

Syrian military sources told SANA that the Monday attack came from the direction of the sea and targeted an Organization for Technological Industries center in Latakia.

The sources also claimed the country’s air defenses shot down a number of incoming missiles. The Syrian army has regularly been accused of exaggerating its interception capabilities.

The state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV reported loud explosions in the coastal Latakia province, saying they were likely from Israeli strikes.

Explosions continued for nearly a half hour, said state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV, which aired footage showing streaks of white light flashing across the sky. An unidentified military official was quoted as saying Syrian air defenses intercepted some missiles heading for the provincial capital of Latakia from the sea.

The attack caused a large explosion and knocked out power to the surrounding area, according to local media.

The Organization for Technological Industries is a subsidiary of the Syrian Ministry of Defense and has been tied to the developments of both missiles and chemical weapons.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the explosions, saying the target appeared to be an ammunition depot, part of the compound of the organization. The war monitoring group said it was not clear if the depot was for Iranian or Syrian forces.

The strikes followed a similar attack on Damascus International Airport late Saturday, which Syrian state media also blamed on Israel. A military official quoted then on state media said Syrian air defenses intercepted some missiles coming from the sea.

Other attacks were reported on September 4 that targeted sites in the coastal Tartus area and in Hama province. The Observatory said at the time that the attacks were believed aimed at Iranian military posts.

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