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Israel Rejects Russian Blame For Deadly Downing Of Surveillance Plane By Syria


An Ilyushin Il-20M (file photo)

Syrian air defenses inadvertently shot down a Russian surveillance plane over the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Moscow has said, blaming what it called reckless actions by Israel that led to the deaths of 15 Russian servicemen.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on September 18 that Israeli pilots conducting attacks on targets in Syria "used the Russian plane as a cover, exposing it to fire from Syrian air defenses."

"The blame for the downed Russian plane and the death of the crew lies fully with the Israeli side," Shoigu told his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, in a phone call, the ministry said in a statement.

"The Russian Defense Ministry, through various channels of coordination, has repeatedly called on the Israeli side to refrain from strikes on Syrian territory that create a threat to the safety of Russian servicemen," Shoigu added, according to the statement.

The Israeli military rejected the accusation, saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces were to blame.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, refrained from directly accusing Israel of responsibility for the incident while speaking alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following their talks in Moscow.

He said the plane was downed following a "chain of tragic accidental circumstances."

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said earlier in the day that Moscow could take "commensurate measures in response" to "the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military."

Putin said Russia's response would be focused on the security of Russian personnel in Syria. "These will be steps that everyone notices," he said, calling the deaths of the servicemen "a tragedy for everyone, for the country, for the loved ones of our fallen comrades."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed sorrow for the death of the Russian soldiers, his office said in a statement on September 18.

Netanyahu told Putin during a phone call that Syria bears responsibility for the downing of the jet.

He also noted that Israel is determined to block Iran from establishing a military presence in Syria and transferring weapons to its proxy Hizballah militia for use against Israel, the statement said.

State-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti said that the Israeli ambassador to Moscow had been summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry on September 18.

The accusation against Israel came hours after the Russian Defense Ministry said that the Ilyushin Il-20 aircraft went off radar 35 kilometers from the Syrian coast at about 11 p.m. local time the previous day.

The Ilyushin disappeared from radar at around the same time that Israeli F-16 fighters attacked Syrian facilities in Latakia Province, the ministry said.​

It said the plane was returning to Hmeimim air base in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia, where the bulk of Russia's armed forces in the country are stationed. Hmeimim is Russia's main base for air strikes on rebel groups in Syria.

Fragments of the plane were found 27 kilometers west of the city of Banias, Russian authorities said, adding that some remains of the crew had been recovered as well.

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump said that the Russian warplane was likely shot down by the Syrian regime.

"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.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was an "unfortunate" incident and a reminder that a political resolution to the conflict was needed.

"Yesterday's unfortunate incident reminds us of the need to find permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria's crowded theater of operations," Pompeo said in a statement on September 18.

Russia has given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crucial support throughout the Syrian conflict, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.

Several countries are conducting military operations in Syria, in some cases supporting opposite sides in the conflict. Communication lines have been set up between countries to mitigate the risk of unintended military confrontation in Syria.

Russia and Israel have largely maintained friendly relations in recent years, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Putin in Moscow several times to discuss the Syria conflict.

Israel is not backing a specific side in the Syria conflict, though it has admitted to conducting air strikes in the country targeting Iran and its allies, including Hizballah.

"These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it," it said.

Before announcing its plane was shot down by Syrian forces, Russia had said rocket launches were detected from the French frigate Auvergne nearby around that time, though the French military denied any involvement.

Israel claimed that its jets were already inside Israeli air space when Syrian forces launched the missiles that struck the Russian aircraft.

Konashenkov said the plane was downed by Syria using an S-200 air-defense system that Russia had provided.

Earlier, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported that missiles were fired at several locations in Latakia Province late on September 17.

State media said the explosions were suspected to have been caused by Israeli strikes.

With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, AP, RIA Novosti, TASS, AFP, and the BBC
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