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Syria accidentally shot down a Russian military aircraft, killing all 15 crew members, when its air defences swung into action against an Israeli missile strike, Russian and Israeli forces said Tuesday.
The incident late Monday was the most deadly known case of friendly fire between Syria and its key backer Russia since Moscow’s game-changing 2015 military intervention in the war-torn country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was the result of “tragic accidental circumstances”.
The Russian Ilyushin dropped off the radar over the Mediterranean moments after Turkey and Russia announced a deal that offered millions of people reprieve from a threatened military assault in northern Syria.
There was no immediate word from Damascus, but the deadly chain of events started when Israeli missiles struck the coastal region of Latakia on Monday.
Israel confirmed that it had targeted a Syrian military facility where weapons manufacturing systems were “about to be transferred on behalf of Iran” to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
It expressed “sorrow” for the Russian deaths, but insisted the Russian plane had been felled by “extensive and inaccurate Syrian anti-aircraft (surface-to-air missile) fire”.
The plane, downed by Syria’s Russian-made S-200 air defence system, had a crew of 15 who were all killed, Moscow said.
The Russian military accused Israeli pilots of using “the Russian plane as a cover, exposing it to fire from Syrian air defences”.
Israel denied the accusations, saying its jets were already back in Israeli airspace when Syrian forces launched the missiles that hit the Russian plane.
Russia stressed that the incident would have no impact on the fledging Idlib deal, but warned Israel of reprisals and summoned its envoy in Moscow.
However, Putin rejected any comparison with Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015.
“It rather looks like a chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” he told reporters.
“An Israeli jet did not shoot down our plane.”
– Two fighters killed –
Moscow had earlier said rockets were fired from a French frigate in the same area of the Mediterranean, but the French military denied any involvement.
Spokesman Colonel Patrik Steiger told AFP the frigate Auvergne “did not fire anything last night”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some missiles did get through the Syrian defences and struck ammunition depots at the site of the technical industries institute.
Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, said at least two fighters were killed and 10 wounded in the strike.
“Two bodies were found,” he told AFP, but he could not immediately confirm whether they were regime soldiers or fighters from other forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Israel has conducted frequent raids in recent months against Syria’s military infrastructure, including against bases it believes host Iranian combatants.
Earlier in September, Israel admitted carrying out 200 strikes in Syria over the past 18 months.
The Syrian blunder came hot on the heels of a major deal announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan after talks in the Russian resort of Sochi.
The two key actors in northern Syria agreed to create a demilitarised zone, 15-20 kilometres (9-12 miles) wide, along the line of contact between rebels and regime troops in the Idlib region.
That would be implemented by October 15 and would entail a withdrawal of all jihadist fighters from the area.
The demilitarised zone will be secured with the help of “mobile patrol groups of Turkish contingents and contingents of Russian military police,” Putin said.
By the end of the year, transport routes between the key port of Latakia and Aleppo as well as Latakia and the major city of Hama must be restored, he added.
– Distrust in Idlib –
Iran, the third member of the so-called Astana process aimed at ending the seven-year civil war in Syria, praised the deal as an example of “responsible diplomacy.”
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the deal should avert an all-out military assault on the rebel stronghold and provide reprieve for millions of civilians.
The European Union said it expected the accord to “guarantee the protection of civilian lives and infrastructure as well as guarantee unhindered and sustainable humanitarian access”.
Damascus, which has regained swathes of territory thanks to deadly Russian-backed offensives in recent months, welcomed the Sochi agreement.
But the deal was met with distrust by Syrians living in the Idlib region, home to around three million people.
“The decision that came out was just a partial one. It doesn’t solve the Syrian people’s problem,” said Wassim Sweid, one of hundreds of protesters who gathered in the rebel-held town of Binnish.
“In my opinion, this agreement will not put a stop to the shelling.”
The UN had warned that a fully-fledged ground assault aimed at completing Damascus’s military reconquest could spark the worst humanitarian catastrophe yet in a conflict that has killed more 360,000 people.
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