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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Russia demands more explanation from Israel on Syria plane downing

Israel dispatches air force chief to brief Moscow about the incident

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin on July 11, 2018. EPA
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin on July 11, 2018. EPA

Israel must provide Moscow with more information about the downing of a Russian military aircraft near the Syrian coast earlier this week, Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday, the Interfax news agency reported.

Fifteen Russian crew were killed when the IL-20 surveillance plane crashed near Latakia in northern Syria on Monday. Russia has said Syria shot the plane down shortly after Israeli jets hit the area, and accused Israel of creating the dangerous conditions by failing to give sufficient advance notice.

Russia's Defence Ministry initially blamed the plane's loss on Israel, saying its fighter jets pushed the Russian plane into the line of fire, but Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to defuse tensions, pointing at “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered to share data with Russia on what was happening in the sky over Syria that day and dispatched his air force chief to Moscow. The official is due to arrive in Moscow on Thursday.

The Russia-bound delegation, led by Major General Amikam Norkin, will "present the situation report... regarding all aspects" of the incident, the Israeli army said in a statement on Wednesday.

It will also provide information on "Iranian attempts to transfer strategic weapons to the Hezbollah terror organisation and to establish an Iranian military presence in Syria", the statement said.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran's proxy Hezbollah militia and insisted it warned Russia of the coming raid in accordance with deconfliction agreements. It said the Syrian army fired the missiles that hit the Russian plane when the Israeli jets had already returned to Israeli airspace.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Thursday accused Israeli pilots of “unprofessionalism” and said that Russia still needs to hear more “explanations from Israel”.

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Israel said on Thursday it would not halt strikes on Syria but would do more to "deconflict" them with Russian forces.

Israel has struck Syria scores of times during its seven-year civil war to prevent what it says are transfers of weapons to Hezbollah fighters and other Iranian allies. Russia has largely overlooked the sorties, which the Israelis say pose no direct threat to Moscow's ally, President Bashar Al Assad.

Speaking to Army Radio, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman made clear that Israel would not halt attacks in Syria.

“We will do whatever is necessary to safeguard the security of Israel's citizens...and we will not hold these discussions over the airwaves,” he said.

But when pressed during the interview, Mr Lieberman avoided asserting Israeli “freedom of action” over Syria, a term he has used in the past.

Naftali Bennett, another far-right member of Mr Netanyahu's security cabinet, said “deconfliction mechanisms” would be improved, referring to a Russian-Israeli hotline designed to avoid inadvertent clashes with forces Moscow sent to Syria as part of a military intervention mounted in 2015.

"We will of course strengthen these mechanisms. We will do everything so as not to harm anyone we do not intend to, God forbid," Mr Bennett told Army Radio in a separate interview.

Israel has admitted to striking Syria to prevent what it says are deliveries of advanced weaponry to Lebanon's Hezbollah, an armed movement backed by Iran and which fights alongside Syrian troops.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said the Shiite movement would stay in Syria "until further notice".

"We will remain there even after the Idlib accord," Nasrallah said, referring to a Russia-Turkey deal to prevent a Syrian regime offensive on the country's last rebel-held stronghold.