Russian plane downed in ‘accidental circumstances’, Putin says

President appears to defuse tensions with Israel after 15 servicemen killed over Syria

Russian president Vladimir Putin moved to ease tensions after a dangerous row erupted between Russia and Israel on Tuesday over the accidental downing of a Russian military plane in the Syrian Mediterranean.

Fifteen Russian servicemen were killed when an Ilyushin-20 reconnaissance aircraft was caught in the crossfire of Syrian missiles fending of an attack by Israeli fighter jets air late on Monday night.

Russia’s defence ministry blamed Israel for the disaster on Tuesday, warning it had the right to retaliate.

However, Mr Putin signalled willingness to absolve Israel of responsibility, saying the Russian aircraft appeared to have been the victim of “a chain of accidental circumstances”.

"As regards any retaliatory action it will be above all directed above all at additional security measures for our servicemen and infrastructure in Syria, " the Russian president told a press conference after talks with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, in Moscow.

Israel admitted its F-16 bombers had conducted strikes targeting weapons facilities in Syria's Latakia province that it said were preparing to supply arms to the Iranian backed Hizbullah militant group. But it said responsibility for the attack on the Russian aircraft lay with the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and its Iranian backers.

In a telephone conversation with Mr Putin, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, offered to send his air force chief to Moscow to share information about the incident. Mr Netanyahu also noted that Israel was determined to prevent Iran from establishing a military stronghold in Syria that could be used to transfer armaments to Hizbullah for use against Israel.

The United Nations special envoy for Syria called on Russia, Syria and Israel to “refrain from military actions” in the wake of the downing of the Il-20. Staffan de Mistura warned that any military response would “exacerbate an already complex situation” in Syria.

Recovering remains

Russia’s defence ministry began recovering the remains of servicemen and their possessions amid the wreckage of the stricken Il-20 some 27km off the coast of Syria’s Latakia province on Tuesday. Eight vessels were conducting the search with the help of unmanned underwater technology.

The aircraft disappeared from radar late on Monday night while preparing to land at a military base in the region that Russia has been using since intervening in the Syrian conflict almost three years ago.

Igor Konashenkov, a Russian defence ministry spokesman, said Israeli F-16 fighter jets had deliberately used the Il-20 as cover against Syrian missiles system while conducting the air strikes. "The Il-20 has an effective reflecting surface in order of magnitude greater than that of the F-16," he told reporters in Moscow.

Israel had also failed to give Russia timely warning of the attack on Syria that could have averted the incident, he said. “As a result of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military, 15 Russian servicemen were killed, which is absolutely not in the spirit of the Russian-Israeli partnership.”

However, Israel said Syrian government forces had failed to check whether any aircraft were in the area before launching defence missiles. All the F-16 jets involved in the attack on Latakia province were back in Israeli airspace before the Russian aircraft was shot down.

Idlib agreement

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said the tragedy would not impact on an agreement announced by Russia and Turkey on Monday to establish a demilitarised zone along the line of conflict in Syria’s Idlib province, one of the last remaining strongholds of rebels fighting the Assad regime.

The United States said the unfortunate downing of the Russian aircraft underscored the danger of “tragic miscalculation in Syria’s crowded theatre of operations”.

The incident, it said, was also a reminder of the urgent need to resolve the Syrian conflict in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions and end Iran’s provocative transit of dangerous weapons systems through the country.