MOSCOW/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Russia accused Israel on Tuesday of indirectly causing a Russian military plane to be shot down near Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and threatened to retaliate against Israel for what it described as a hostile act.
Russia’s Defence Minifstry said the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft, with 15 Russian service personnel on board, was brought down by anti-aircraft batteries of Moscow’s ally, Syria, in a friendly fire incident.
But the ministry said it held Israel responsible because, at the time of the incident, Israeli fighter jets were mounting air attacks on Syria targets and had only given Moscow one minute’s warning, putting the Russian aircraft in danger of being caught in the cross-fire.
“We view the actions of the Israeli military as hostile,” Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian state television. “As a result of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military, 15 Russian service personnel perished.”
Israel Defence Forces expressed sorrow at the deaths of the Russian air crew, but placed the blame squarely on the Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries that struck the Russian plane.
In a statement, it said that Syrian forces fired indiscriminately without bothering to check if there were Russian planes in the area. It also said by the time the Russian plane was hit, the Israeli jets were already out of Syria and back in their own airspace.
An Israeli diplomatic source said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to speak soon with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the incident.
After the incident, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, and told him Moscow held Israel wholly responsible for the shooting down of the plane, Russian news agencies reported.
Israel’s ambassador in Moscow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry over the incident, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
A row between Israel and Russia could restrict Israel’s ability to mount air strikes inside Syria on what it considers the greatest threat to its security from the Syria conflict: build-ups of Iranian forces or groupings of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia.
Since intervening in Syria’s civil war in 2015, Russia has generally turned a blind eye to the Israeli attacks on these targets. Israel has carried out about 200 such attacks in the last two years, according to Israeli officials.
Amos Yadlin, Director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said on Twitter the downing of the Russian plane could “limit the bid to stop Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the transfers of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.”