MOSCOW — A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was brought down by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean, killing all 15 people on board, the Russian defense ministry said Tuesday. It blamed Israel for the crash, saying the plane was caught in the crossfire as four Israeli fighters attacked targets in northwestern Syria.
The Russian military said that the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was hit 22 miles offshore late Monday as it was returning to its home base nearby.
“The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian defense,” Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, later on Tuesday to say that Israel is “fully to blame” for the deaths, the ministry said.
The military said Israel did not warn it of its operation over Latakia province until one minute before the strike, which did not give the Russian plane enough time to escape.
Both the Israeli military and Israel's Foreign Ministry declined comment on the Russian claim.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a recovery operation in the Mediterranean Sea is underway and that it has already located the wreckage in the sea and has retrieved some bodies and some fragments of the plane.
The Kremlin sounded cautious in the aftermath of the attack, refusing to comment on a potential row with Israel.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that the Kremlin is “analyzing the situation” and does not want to speak further at this point.
For several years, Israel and Russia have maintained a special hotline to prevent their air forces from clashing in the skies over Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.
Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and it has two military bases in the country, including one close to the Mediterranean coast.
Russia's dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 in support of the Syrian government, after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its coalition partners against the Islamic State group, increased the specter of dangerous confrontations in the skies over Syria.
Turkey's troops are also on the ground in northern Syria and are patrolling the skies over the region as Ankara seeks to ramp up its influence there and curb the expansion of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory.
Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But it has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah.
Israel has also acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times. Israel has warned that it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in postwar Syria.
Throughout the fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained continuous contact with Russia. Netanyahu frequently travels to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syria issue.
Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at the Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel's Army Radio station that the shooting down is problematic both militarily and internally from a Russian perspective.
“I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel's freedom of activity,” she said.
The plane crashed only hours after the leaders of Russia and Turkey reached an agreement to avert an all-out offensive by government forces to retake Syria's last remaining rebel stronghold in Idlib.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Tuesday called the deal “a landmark and crucial agreement for Syria's future” and said the shooting down of the plane will have no impact on that deal.
In Damascus, Syria's foreign ministry welcomed the agreement, while vowing that it will continue the fight against “terrorism until liberating the last inch of the Syrian territory, whether through military operations or through local reconciliations.”
Iran also welcomed the agreement, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeting: “Diplomacy works.”