MOSCOW: Russia’s military yesterday blamed “misleading” information from the Israeli air force for the downing of one of its planes in Syria last week, and denounced the “adventurism” of Israeli pilots. Israel strongly disputed the assertion and vowed it will continue to act against Iranian targets in neighboring Syria. A Syrian air defense missile downed the Russian Ilyushin Il-20 military plane on Sept 17, killing all 15 soldiers aboard and threatening to damage relations between Russia and Israel, which three years ago set up a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to seek to move past the incident in spite of strong statements from the Russian military. Yesterday, military spokesman Igor Konashenkov presented the results of an investigation. Moscow has accused Israel’s fighter pilots of using the bigger Ilyushin as cover, causing Syria’s Soviet-era S-200 air defense system to interpret the Russian plane as a target.
Israel denied this version of events and its air force commander flew to Moscow following the incident, which Putin called the result of a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances”. It was the deadliest known case of friendly fire between Syria and key backer Russia since Moscow’s game-changing 2015 military intervention.
Konashenkov said the Russian military received a call from Israeli command at 1839 GMT on the day of the incident to warn that Israel would be striking “north of Syria”, where the Il-20 surveillance aircraft was monitoring the Idlib de-escalation zone. Russia ordered its plane back to base. Then, “one minute” after Israel’s call, its F-16 planes struck targets in Latakia in western Syria, he said. “The misleading (information) by the Israeli officer regarding the location of the strikes made it impossible to guide the Il-20 to a safe location,” said Konashenkov.
As the Il-20 was landing near Latakia, one of the F-16 planes “began maneuvers” at 1859 GMT “getting closer to the Il-20”, which was interpreted as a repeat attack by the Syrian air defence and resulted in it being shot down, he said. “Monitoring the Il-20, the Israeli fighters used it as cover from the anti-aircraft missiles” and continued to patrol the area long after the Russian plane was shot down, he said.
The Israeli pilots’ actions “either speak of their unprofessionalism or criminal negligence at the very least,” Konashenkov said, reiterating the Israeli air force was fully responsible for the downing of the plane. The “adventurism” of the Israeli military could have endangered civilian planes which use the same airspace to land at the nearby Hmeimim aerodrome, the officer said. “This is a very ungrateful response to everything Russia has done for Israel”.
Israel’s military said in a statement its jets “did not hide behind any aircraft and that the Israeli aircraft were in Israeli airspace at the time of the downing of the Russian plane”. It again offered condolences to Russia. Israel says it was targeting a Syrian military facility where weapons manufacturing systems were “about to be transferred on behalf of Iran” to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. It has pledged to stop Iran, its main enemy, from entrenching itself militarily in the neighboring country and has carried out dozens of attacks on Iranian targets there. Iranian-backed Hezbollah is also an enemy of Israel, which has carried out strikes in Syria to stop what it says are advanced arms deliveries to the Shiite group. – AFP