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Russia: Israel Shot Down Plane         09/18 06:25

   MOSCOW (AP) -- A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was brought down by a 
Syrian missile over the Mediterranean, killing all 15 people on board, the 
Russian defense ministry said Tuesday. It blamed Israel for the crash, saying 
the plane was caught in the crossfire as four Israeli fighters attacked targets 
in northwestern Syria.

   The Russian military said that the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was hit 35 
kilometers (22 miles) offshore late Monday as it was returning to its home base 
nearby.

   "The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed 
it into the line of fire of the Syrian defense," Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. 
Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

   Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor 
Lieberman, later on Tuesday to say that Israel is "fully to blame" for the 
deaths, the ministry said.

   The military said Israel did not warn it of its operation over Latakia 
province until one minute before the strike, which did not give the Russian 
plane enough time to escape.

   Both the Israeli military and Israel's Foreign Ministry declined comment on 
the Russian claim.

   The Russian Defense Ministry said a recovery operation in the Mediterranean 
Sea is underway and that it has already located the wreckage in the sea and has 
retrieved some bodies and some fragments of the plane.

   The Kremlin sounded cautious in the aftermath of the attack, refusing to 
comment on a potential row with Israel.

   Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that 
the Kremlin is "analyzing the situation" and does not want to speak further at 
this point.

   For several years, Israel and Russia have maintained a special hotline to 
prevent their air forces from clashing in the skies over Syria. Israeli 
military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.

   Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and it has two 
military bases in the country, including one close to the Mediterranean coast.

   Russia's dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 in support of the 
Syrian government, after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its coalition 
partners against the Islamic State group, increased the specter of dangerous 
confrontations in the skies over Syria.

   Turkey's troops are also on the ground in northern Syria and are patrolling 
the skies over the region as Ankara seeks to ramp up its influence there and 
curb the expansion of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory.

   Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But it has 
acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its 
Shiite proxy Hezbollah.

   Israel has also acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times. 
Israel has warned that it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military 
presence in postwar Syria.

   Throughout the fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has 
maintained continuous contact with Russia. Netanyahu frequently travels to 
Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syria issue.

   Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general 
at the Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel's Army Radio station that the 
shooting down is problematic both militarily and internally from a Russian 
perspective.

   "I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel's freedom of 
activity," she said.

   The plane crashed only hours after the leaders of Russia and Turkey reached 
an agreement to avert an all-out offensive by government forces to retake 
Syria's last remaining rebel stronghold in Idlib.

   Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Tuesday called the deal "a landmark and 
crucial agreement for Syria's future" and said the shooting down of the plane 
will have no impact on that deal.

   In Damascus, Syria's foreign ministry welcomed the agreement, while vowing 
that it will continue the fight against "terrorism until liberating the last 
inch of the Syrian territory, whether through military operations or through 
local reconciliations."

   Iran also welcomed the agreement, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif 
tweeting: "Diplomacy works."


(KA)

 
 
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