A Russian military aircraft with 15 people onboard has been accidentally shot down by allied Syrian anti-aircraft defences that were targeting Israeli jets, the Russian defence ministry has said.
The ministry blamed Israel’s “irresponsible actions” for the incident, saying Israeli fighter jet pilots intentionally used the aircraft as cover against Syrian missiles in a “deliberate provocation”.
An eight-vessel search for the Russian Il-20, a surveillance plane, was initiated after contact was lost about 20 miles (35km) off the coast of Syria at about 11pm local time (8pm GMT) on Monday. Russia said it had located the wreckage and some remains of the personnel onboard. No survivors had been found early on Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement, a Russian military spokesman said Israeli F-16 pilots were using the Russian plane as a shield while carrying out missile strikes against targets in Syria’s Latakia province and put it in the line of fire from Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.
“The Il-20, which has a much bigger reflective surface than the F-16, was struck down by an S-200 rocket,” the spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, said. “We retain the right to an appropriate response,” he added, without giving details on whether that response could include military action.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, told a senior Israeli official that Israel bore “full responsibility” for the incident and the death of the Russian crew, a military spokesman said later on Tuesday.
In a telephone call with his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, Shoigu said the Israeli actions were viewed as “hostile” and that Moscow had repeatedly warned Israel not to carry out strikes against Syria that endangered Russian servicemen. Israel’s ambassador in Moscow has been summoned to the Russian foreign ministry over the incident.
Damascus said its anti-air batteries had fired at incoming missiles that were heading towards several locations in the coastal city of Latakia.
“Air defences have confronted enemy missiles coming from the sea in the direction of Latakia city, and intercepted a number of them,” the state news agency Sana quoted a military source as saying.
A US official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the US government believed Syrian defences may have accidentally shot down the Russian aircraft while firing at incoming Israeli missiles. Hmeimim airbase, the Russian-operated facility in Syria to which the missing plane was returning, is located south-east of Latakia city.
“The missiles were not fired by the US military and we have nothing further at this time,” a spokesperson for the Pentagon told the Guardian. France also denied involvement after Russia said it was mounting attacks on Syria targets at the time of the incident.
The Israeli military, contacted before Russia said it was to blame, said it did not comment on “foreign reports”. 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.
As well as the hotline, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made trips to Moscow to seek to convince President Vladimir Putin not to supply Assad with Russian-made anti-aircraft defences that might endanger Israeli jets on sorties.
Russia said Israel had given only one minute’s warning before launching missile strikes against the Syrian coast.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that monitors the conflict, said huge explosions were heard in Latakia on Monday night, wounding more than 10 people, whom they identified as “regime forces and military personnel”.
Russia’s military operation in Syria, which began in late 2015, has turned the tide of the conflict in favour of Moscow’s ally, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in his fight against rebels.
At the same time, Israel’s air force has launched scores of attacks on Syrian territory in a campaign it says is to prevent its arch-enemy and Assad’s ally, Iran, from gaining a military foothold in a neighbouring country. The strikes have also targeted arms shipments in Syria to Lebanon’s Tehran-backed Hezbollah movement.
In April, France joined the US and Britain to launch more than 100 missiles at what they said were Syrian chemical weapons facilities in retaliation for a suspected poison attack. A senior French army chief said this month that Paris was ready to strike again under similar circumstances.
The Kremlin played down speculation that the incident could affect its ability to strike deals among rival sides in the Syrian conflict. Russia has sought to trade on its influence with the Syrian and Iranian governments, and Israel has lobbied Russia to push back against growing Iranian influence in Syria, particularly near the Israeli border.
Russia publicly deployed military police to the Golan Heights frontier between Syria and Israel last month amid heightened tensions in the area. The deployment of advanced Russian air defence systems to Syria have also raised concerns about the safety of Israeli forces acting in the area.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said on Tuesday said recent agreements with Turkey about de-escalation zones near the rebel stronghold of Idlib would be unaffected by the downing of the plane.