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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Russian military jet carrying 14 servicemen vanishes off radar

Hours after the attack, Russia’s defence ministry said it lost contact with one of its IL-20 aircrafts carrying 14 soldiers

The Russian military uses the Syrian Hmeymim airbase outside Latakia. EPA
The Russian military uses the Syrian Hmeymim airbase outside Latakia. EPA

UPDATE: Moscow says its Syrian ally shot down Russian plane

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A Russian military jet carrying 14 servicemen vanished from radar over the Mediterranean Sea late on Monday as Syria came under attack by Israeli missiles, the defence ministry said.

The fate of the military personnel is unknown, the ministry said in a statement which was carried by Russian news agencies. A search for the plane was under way.

"Connection has been lost with the crew of a Russian Il-20 plane over the Mediterranean Sea 35 kilometres from the Syrian coast as it was returning to the Hmeimim airbase," the Russian defence ministry said early Tuesday.

The aircraft’s disappearance came as rocket fire hit the Institute of Technological Industries in Syria’s coastal city of Latakia in what state media described as an Israeli strike. The report said some of the missiles were launched from sea and targeted Latakia, Homs and Hama.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the incident saying they do not comment on foreign reports. But Israeli jets have struck Syria dozens of times in recent years, mostly targeting Iranian and Hezbollah positions. The latest strikes came just 48 hours after a suspected Israel raid on a weapons depot near Damascus Airport.

Syrian official TV reported around 10.20 pm local time on Monday that the Institute of Technological Industries in Latakia was hit by missile strikes.

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It added that Russia’s naval facility in Tartous responded with anti-missile launches to the attack.

Early photos of the suspected attack showed a huge ball of fire in the skies of Latakia:

The state media reported that missiles targeted Latakia and Homs and Hama. Syria watchers on Twitter said Hama’s military airport, and Unit 47 were attacked:

Russia pointed the finger at a French Navy ship The Auvergne which was in the area at the time it lost contact with its aircraft.

“Russian airspace controls means have detected several missile launches from [a] French frigate in the Mediterranean”, the defence ministry in Moscow said in a statement.

But a French army spokesman pushed back, saying: “The French army denies any involvement in this attack".

A Pentagon spokesman said the United States was not involved and declined to provide further details.

"The missiles were not fired by the US military and we have nothing further at this time," he said.

But a US official told CNN: “The US military believes that Syrian [regime] anti-aircraft artillery accidentally shot down a Russian maritime patrol aircraft” while “attempting to shoot down a barrage of Israeli missiles targeting locations in Latakia.”

The jet vanished from radar just hours after Russia said there would be no assault against Syria's Idlib as the presidents of Russia and Turkey agreed to create a "demilitarised zone" in the rebel-held province.

After more than four hours of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his residence in Sochi, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said their two countries would "prevent a humanitarian tragedy."

President Putin said the two leaders agreed to create a 15 to 20 kilometre wide demilitarised zone along the line of contact between rebels and regime troops by October 15.

This would entail a "withdrawal of all radical fighters" from Idlib including the Al Nusra Front and also the withdrawal of heavy weaponry including tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, President Putin said.

Russia-backed forces of the Syrian regime have massed around Idlib province in recent weeks, sparking fears of an imminent air and ground attack to retake the last major opposition bastion.

Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict to buttress the Assad regime in 2015.

Russia has previously lost aircraft during its Syria campaign.

In November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border, triggering a severe crisis in ties with Moscow.