Russia’s military on Sunday blamed “misleading” information from the Israeli Air Force for the downing of one of a military aircraft in Syria last week, and denounced the “adventurism” of Israeli pilots.
Israel strongly disputed the assertion and vowed it will continue to act against Iranian targets in neighboring Syria.
An air defense missile launched by Syrian forces shot down the Russian Ilyushin Il-20 electronic signals intelligence plane on September 17, killing all 15 soldiers aboard and threatening to damage relations between Russia and Israel, which three years ago set up a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to seek to move past the incident in spite of strong statements from the Russian military.
On Sunday, Russian defense ministry spokesperson Major-General Igor Konashenkov presented the results of an investigation.
Moscow has accused Israel’s fighter pilots of using the larger Ilyushin aircraft as cover, causing Syria’s Soviet-era S-200 air defence system to interpret the Russian plane as a target.
Israel denied this version of events and its air force commander flew to Moscow following the incident, which Putin called the result of a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”
It was the deadliest known case of friendly fire between Syria and key backer Russia since Moscow’s game-changing 2015 military intervention.
Konashenkov said the Russian military received a call from Israeli command at 9:39 p.m. (1839 GMT) on the day of the incident to warn that Israel would be striking “north of Syria,” where the Il-20 surveillance aircraft was monitoring the Idlib de-escalation zone.
Russia ordered its plane back to base. Then, “one minute” after Israel’s call, its F-16 planes struck targets in Latakia in western Syria, he said.
“The misleading [information] by the Israeli officer regarding the location of the strikes made it impossible to guide the Il-20 to a safe location,” Konashenkov said.
As the Il-20 was landing near Russia’s air base in Latakia, one of the F-16 planes “began maneuvers” at 1859 GMT “getting closer to the Il-20,” which was interpreted as a repeat attack by the Syrian air defence and resulted in it being shot down, he said.
Four minutes later, “a Syrian missile hit the closest and biggest target, which was the Il-20 aircraft. The captain reported about a fire on board and the start of an emergency landing,” he said.
The aircraft disappeared from radar at 10:07 p.m. local time.
According to Tass, Konashenkov said the Israeli fighters used the Russian aircraft as cover, knowing that air defense missiles would hit the larger target.
“Monitoring the Il-20, the Israeli fighters used it as cover from the anti-aircraft missiles” and continued to patrol the area long after the Russian plane was shot down, he said.
“After the first attack, the Israeli jets pulled back, moving to an area 70 kilometers west of the Syrian coast, turning their radar jamming devices on and apparently making preparations for another attack,” Konashenkov said.
At 10:29, a Russian duty officer in Syria informed the Israeli Air Force that the Russian aircraft was in distress and demanded that Israeli fighter jets leave the area, Tass reported Konashenkov as saying. An Israeli lieutenant confirmed they had received this information, but the Israeli F-16s remained in the area until 10:40.
“Objective data says that the actions of Israeli pilots, which led to the death of 15 Russian military personnel, point to either lack of professionalism or criminal negligence,” Konashenkov said.
“This is why we believe that the Russian Il-20 aircraft tragedy is solely the fault of the Israeli Air Force and those who made decisions concerning such actions,” he added.
The “adventurism” of the Israeli military could have endangered civilian planes which use the same airspace to land at the nearby Hmeimim aerodrome, the officer said.
“This is a very ungrateful response to everything Russia has done for Israel.”
The Israeli Defense Forces said in a statement its jets “did not hide behind any aircraft and that the Israeli aircraft were in Israeli airspace at the time of the downing of the Russian plane.”
It again offered condolences to Russia.
Israel says it was targeting a Syrian military facility where weapons manufacturing systems were “about to be transferred on behalf of Iran” to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
It has pledged to stop Iran, its main enemy, from entrenching itself militarily in the neighbouring country and has carried out dozens of attacks on Iranian targets there.
Iran-backed Hezbollah is also an enemy of Israel, which has carried out strikes in Syria to stop what it says are advanced arms deliveries to the Shiite group, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel but not Russia.
With reporting from AFP