Russia blames Israel for plane shot down by Syrian missile
A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 15 people on board, the Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday. 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 the Il-20 electronic intelligence plane was hit 35 kilometres (22 miles) offshore late 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 defense," said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, later 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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, struck a reconciliatory note Tuesday, blaming the shooting down on "a chain of tragic circumstances".
Asked about the Defense Ministry's threat to respond to Israel's actions, Putin said the Russian response will focus on boosting security for its troops in Syria. He did not elaborate but said "these will be the steps that everyone will notice".
The Israeli military said in a statement Tuesday that its jets were already within Israeli airspace when the downing occurred. Israel offered condolences for the deaths of the Russian troops but said it holds the Syrian government "fully responsible". It also blamed Iran and Hezbollah for what it described as an "unfortunate incident."
The Russian Defense Ministry said a recovery operation located the plane's wreckage at sea and has retrieved some bodies and some fragments from the plane. A specialised ship carrying submersibles was heading to the area to join the operation.
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, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has an air base at Hemeimeem and a naval facility in Tartus. The plane was downed as it was heading to land at Hemeimeem.
Russia has previously lost at least seven warplanes and seven combat helicopters in Syria, and also seen dozens of troops killed in ground combat.