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Syria Accidentally Shoots Down Russian Warplane While Defending Against Israeli Airstrikes: Reports

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In this file photo, Syrian anti-aircraft missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018. Russia said one of its warplanes was shot down over the Mediterranean by Syrian missiles. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

A Russian military plane with more than a dozen people aboard reportedly disappeared from radar off the coast of Syria, with reports suggesting it may have been accidentally shot down by Syrian anti-air defenses.

Contact was lost with the Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft at around 11 p.m. local time Monday, according to Russia’s defense ministry, according to Reuters. The ministry claimed Israel and France were launching strikes on Syria at the time the plane disappeared, though it did not explicitly accuse either nation of shooting the plane down.

Quoting the defense ministry, Kremlin-backed RIA news agency acknowledged it was Syrian missiles that had downed the plane with 15 people aboard. But the defense ministry said the Israeli aircraft conducting airstrikes used the Il-20 as cover, putting it directly in harm's way. 

The ministry also said Israel gave only a warning of its operation one minute before the shootdown, meaning Russia did not have time to warn its pilots. "Such actions can only be classified as a deliberate provocation," the ministry said.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tweeted its regret at the incident, but maintained the fault lay with Syrian forces rather than the Israeli pilots. The tweet said the strikes targeted warehouses storing weapons meant for the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

The IDF also alleged: "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."

An anonymous U.S. official had earlier told Reuters the reconnaissance plane was shot down by Syrian troops as it returned to the Russian Khmeimim air base near the coastal city of Latakia. The Latakia area is known as President Bashar al-Assad’s fortress region, and hosts a significant number of Russian troops, aircraft and naval assets.

The plane was about 20 miles from the Syrian coastline when it disappeared, according to a government statement carried by Russia’s state-backed TASS news agency. “The trace of the Il-20 on flight control radars disappeared during an attack by four Israeli F-16 jets on Syrian facilities in Latakia province,” the statement read.

“At the same time Russian air control radar systems detected rocket launches from the French frigate Auvergne, which was located in that region,” it added. A French military spokesperson told Agence France Presse it denied “any involvement in this attack.”

The fate of the crew members is unclear, but the Russian defense ministry said a rescue operation had been launched from Khmeimim.

Syrian culpability would be embarrassing for the Damascus-Moscow alliance, which since 2015 has turned the tide against rebel forces in Assad’s favor. Rebel and jihadist forces have been defeated in all but one Syrian province, and a regime victory now looks like a foregone conclusion.

The shootdown came just hours after Turkey and Russia announced a new deal to establish a demilitarized buffer zone in Idlib, which would remove the need for a bloody assault on the enclave. It will be put in place by October 15, and both sides will facilitate the removal of jihadists and heavy weaponry. 

Multiple Russian planes have been lost either to accidents or enemy fire since Moscow joined the conflict. The most deadly was in December 2016, when a transport plane carrying a group of Red Army musicians crashed into the Black Sea on its way to Syria. All 92 people onboard were killed.

And in March of this year, 39 troops died when another transport plane crashed while landing at Khmeimim. Fighter jets have also been shot down by rebel fighters in February 2018 and a Turkish warplane in 2015.