Putin sees 'chance events' behind jet downing as Israel blames Syria
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President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that the shooting down of a Russian military plane near Syria's seacoast was accidental as Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu expressed sorrow at the deaths but blamed the Syrian military.
Russia's Defence Ministry said earlier that the aircraft was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft systems, but accused Israel of indirectly causing the incident, saying Israeli jets operating nearby had put the Russian plane in the path of danger. The ministry threatened to retaliate over what it called a hostile act.
Putin's comments, made after talks with Hungary's prime minister in Moscow, appeared to somewhat defuse the situation though he said Russia needed to look further into what happened.
"It looks most likely in this case that it was a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft. But, without any doubt we need to seriously get to the bottom of what happened," Putin told reporters.
The Russian president said Moscow's response to the incident would aim at securing the safety of Russian military personnel in Syria's complex civil war in which various outside powers have backed opposing sides.
"As for retaliatory measures, they will be aimed first and foremost at further ensuring the safety of our military personnel and facilities in Syria. And these will be steps that everyone will notice," Putin said.
Russia's Defence Ministry 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."
'Inaccurate’ Syrian fire
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said he had spoken to Putin and expressed regret for the loss of Russian lives, while stressing that the Syrian military was to blame.
In a rare move, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also expressed sorrow at the deaths but blamed the Syrian government and its allies Iran and Hezbollah. "Israel holds the Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident," the IDF said in a statement.
It said the initial Israeli inquiry into the incident found that "extensive and inaccurate" Syrian surface-to-air anti-aircraft fire "caused the Russian plane to be hit and downed".
"The Syrian anti-air batteries fired indiscriminately and from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air," the statement said.
It added that by the time the Russian plane was struck, the Israeli jets were already out of Syria and back in their own airspace. The Russian plane was "not within the area of the operation" carried out by the Israeli jets, it said.
Israel's ambassador in Moscow was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry over the matter, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Russian blind eye
Any row between Israel and Russia could restrict Israel's ability to carry out air strikes inside Syria on what it considers the greatest threat to its security from the Syrian 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 conducted 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".
The Israel military said Tuesday its fighter jets had "targeted a facility of the Syrian Armed Forces from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon".
It said the weapons targeted in the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia "were meant to attack Israel and posed an intolerable threat against it".
Several countries have military operations under way around Syria, with forces on the ground or launching strikes from the air or from ships in the Mediterranean. In some cases, those countries are backing opposing sides in the Syrian war.
Foreign powers involved in the conflict – including Israel and Russia - operate hotlines to exchange operational details to avoid one side accidentally attacking the other's forces.
However, diplomats and military experts have warned that the risk of inadvertent strikes is high.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)