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Syria Shoots Down a Russian Military Plane, and Moscow Blames Israel

Syrian antiaircraft missiles shot down a Russian military aircraft carrying 15 service members off the Syrian coast Monday night, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

Moscow angrily blamed the Israeli military for what appeared to be a case of friendly fire, saying the Israelis were conducting air raids in the area and had given only a minute’s warning, too little for the Il-20 surveillance plane to fly out of harm’s way.

The episode came the same day that the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said that Syria would refrain from launching an offensive on Idlib Province, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.

Since the beginnings of great power involvement in the Syrian civil war, the parties have made extensive efforts to avoid accidents or misunderstandings that could spiral into a wider conflict. The shooting down Monday night seemed to validate those fears, as Russia warned of possible retaliation.

“We reserve the right to take adequate measures in response,” said Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, according to the news agency Interfax. “As a result of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military, 15 Russian servicemen died. This absolutely does not correspond to the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership.”

The Defense Ministry also said that Israeli jets were using the surveillance plane as a “shield” when it disappeared from radar screens over the Mediterranean Sea, 22 miles from the Syrian coast. The aircraft had been returning to a Russian air base near the Syrian port city of Latakia, and the Defense Ministry said it had organized a search-and-rescue operation after the plane disappeared.

The Israeli raids seemed to have been aimed at military targets in Latakia, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported several huge explosions Monday night.

Israel rarely comments on its military interventions in Syria, and after initially refusing to discuss the episode, the Israel Defense Forces released a statement saying that it would share “all relevant information” with Russia but rejecting any suggestion that it was at fault for the downing of the plane.

Israel said that it held the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad “fully responsible” for the episode, adding that Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that operates in Syria and that is a bitter enemy of Israel, were also accountable.

Citing an “intolerable threat,” Israel said its jets were targeting a military facility in Syria, the statement said, from which weapons-manufacturing systems were to be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It added that the antiaircraft missiles fired by Syria had been inaccurate and had fired indiscriminately.

The Israeli Air Force has conducted extensive operations in Syria — more than 200 sorties over the past two years, it recently acknowledged — as it seeks to prevent Syria’s Iranian allies from establishing a military foothold there. It has also acted to stop arms shipments to Iran and Hezbollah, which has backing from Tehran.

Russia has been the most important backer for Mr. Assad during Syria’s long-running civil war, now approaching eight years, and it has sent warplanes and troops to support him, recently deploying a large flotilla of warships to the region.

Mr. Shoigu’s announcement came after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appeared to delay what had been forecast to be a bloody assault on Idlib by agreeing to establish a “demilitarized zone” there.

At least three million Syrian civilians and 30,000 insurgent fighters, including Qaeda-linked jihadists, have been cornered in Idlib, the last significant piece of territory in Syria that Mr. Assad does not control.

Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the United States Central Command, referred questions on the episode to the Russian Defense Ministry. “The U.S. was not involved in any strikes in Western Syria or in the shoot down of any planes tonight,” he said on Monday evening.

Follow Mike Ives on Twitter: @mikeives.

Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer, David M. Halbfinger, Sophia Kishkovsky, Ivan Nechepurenko and Thomas Gibbons-Neff.

Source: NYT > World

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