Russian Airplane with 15 on board Shot Down by Syrian Forces, Putin Calls up Netanyahu
The ELINT - electronic and radar reconnaissance version of the IL-20 airplance used by Russia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A Russian military aircraft with multiple personnel on board was accidentally shot down by the Syrian forces after the Syrians reportedly came under attack by Israeli missiles.

Russia's Tass news agency said a reconnaissance plane had "disappeared during an attack by four Israeli F-16 jets on Syrian facilities in Latakia province". The downing was reported to have occurred close to the Syrian coast as the Il-20 aircraft was returning to Russia's Hmeimim airbase near Latakia. All 15 Russian crew members were killed.

But the incident is being blamed by Russian officials on the Israeli forces. Russian defence officials described manoeuvres by Israeli fighter jets during the incident as "hostile" and said it had a right to retaliate. "The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian defence," Igor Konashenkov, Russian defence ministry spokesperson, told state media.

A warning from Israel was received "less than one minute before the strike, which left no chance for taking the Russian plane to safety," added Konashenkov.

The Israel Defense Forces rejected claims its fighter jets had indirectly caused the incident and said it holds Syria, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah responsible for it.

The IDF said its aircraft were targeting Syrian military facilities "from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon".

Following the downing of the Russian plane, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a more conciliatory tone as compared to his defence ministry and said the incident was the result of a "tragic chain of circumstances." Putin said at a media briefing: "It looks most likely in this case that it was a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft. But, without any doubt we need to seriously get the bottom of what happened."

Putin later spoke to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu who expressed regret at the loss of 15 Russian personnel, but stressed again that Syria was to blame. Netanyahu also offered to provide "all necessary information" in the investigation of the incident.

The downing of the Russian jet late highlighted the dangers posed by the conflicting interests of various powers in war-torn Syria as Israel works to target Syrian and Iranian interests while maintaining a working relationship with Russia who is also backing the Syrian regime.