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September 18, 2018 11:38 am

Putin Softens Russian Blame of Israel for Downing of Military Plane Off Syrian Coast

avatar by Ben Cohen and Agencies

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) stands alongside Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during a December 2017 visit to Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria. Photo: Reuters / Mikhail Klimentyev.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that “tragic and chance circumstances” were behind the downing of a Russian military plane off the coast of Syria the previous night — softening previous claims by senior defense officials in Moscow who blamed the Israeli Air Force for the incident.

Fifteen Russian soldiers were killed when a S-200 missile fired by the Syrian military hit the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft. Israeli planes had earlier attacked a Syrian military facility near Latakia (the Israeli military has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria in recent years to prevent the transfer of advanced Iranian weaponry to the Tehran regime’s Shi’a Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah).

“It looks most likely in this case that it was a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft. But without any doubt, we need to seriously get to the bottom of what happened,” Putin told reporters in Moscow.

Putin added that Russia’s response to the incident would be based on securing the safety of the thousands of its troops in Syria. “As for retaliatory measures, they will be aimed first and foremost at further ensuring the safety of our military personnel and facilities in Syria,” the Russian leader said. “And these will be steps that everyone will notice.”

Along with Iran, Russia has been the main backer of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the ongoing brutal civil war that began in the country seven years ago.

According to an official Russian Defense Ministry video released in August, the Kremlin has dispatched more than 63,000 troops to Syria since Assad requested Russian military assistance in 2015. It noted that Russian warplanes had carried out 39,000 strikes in Syria, and that over 25,000 Russian officers had participated in “combat operations on the ground.” Human rights groups, UN investigators and the US government have all charged Russia with committing war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians and rescue workers in its attacks.

Putin’s account of Tuesday’s incident over Syria was noticeably different from that given by Russian defense officials just hours earlier. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, charged that Israeli planes had “used the Russian airplane as a cover,” putting it “in the line of fire coming from Syrian air defense systems.”

“Due to the Israeli military’s irresponsible actions 15 Russian servicemen perished,” Konashenkov said in remarks quoted by Russian official media outlets. “This is absolutely against the spirit of the Russian-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right to take adequate tit-for-tat steps.”

Separately, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, and told him Moscow held Israel wholly responsible for the shooting down of the plane, Russian news agencies reported.

Prior to Putin’s statements, the Russian position on the incident appeared to be getting increasingly complicated, with one military analyst even implicating the French Navy alongside the Israelis. “The French Navy’s frigate, the Auvergne, did not make the best contribution to the air situation, creating additional difficulties for Syrian air defense teams,” Mikhail Khodaryonok, a military analyst with the state-run TASS agency said.

The IDF firmly denied the Russian allegations. “During the strike against the target in Latakia, the Russian plane that was then hit was not within the area of the operation,” an Israeli military statement said, underlining that at the moment the Russian aircraft was hit, IAF jets had already returned to Israeli airspace.

Prominent Israeli military experts also took to social media, pouring cold water on Russia’s earlier allegations of Israeli responsibility.

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