MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Russian military aircraft with 14 people on board vanished from radar screens over Syria at the same time as Israeli and French forces were launching strikes on targets in Syria, Russia’s defense ministry said on Tuesday.
A U.S. official said Washington believed the aircraft, an Il-20 turbo-prop plane used for electronic reconnaissance, was inadvertently shot down by anti-aircraft artillery operated by Moscow’s ally, the Syrian government.
Around the time the plane disappeared, the Syrian coastal city of Latakia — near a Russian airbase to which the Il-20 was returning — came under attack from “enemy missiles”, and missile defense batteries responded, Syrian state media reported.
France denied any involvement in the plane’s disappearance.
The defense ministry in Moscow said the aircraft was returning to the Russian-run Hmeymim airbase when, at about 11:00 p.m. Moscow time (20:00 GMT) on Monday, it lost radar contact.
The plane was over the Mediterranean Sea about 35 km (20 miles) from the Syrian coastline, Russia’s TASS news agency quoted the ministry as saying in a statement.
“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 was quoted as saying.
“At the same time Russian air control radar systems detected rocket launches from the French frigate Auvergne which was located in that region.”
Israel’s military declined to comment.
The fate of the 14 people on board the missing plane is unknown, and a rescue operation has been organized out of the Hmeymim base, the ministry said.
“We deny any involvement,” Colonel Patrik Steiger, a spokesman for France’s military, told Reuters.
Russia’s military operation in Syria, which began in late 2015, has turned the tide of the conflict in favor of Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in his fight against rebels.
But it has come at a cost to Russia.
In December 2016, a Russian plane carrying dozens of Red Army choir singers, dancers and musicians crashed into the Black Sea on the way to Syria, killing all 92 people on board.
In March this year, a Russian military transport plane crashed when coming in to land at the Hmeymim base, killing all 39 people on board.
Several countries have military operations underway around Syria, with forces on the ground or launching strikes from the air or from ships in the Mediterranean. In some cases, those countries are backing opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.
The United States, France and Britain launched scores of missiles at the heart of Syria’s chemical weapons program in April in retaliation for a suspected poison attack.
The French frigate Aquitaine was involved in those strikes.
Reporting by Christian Lowe in MOSCOW, Phil Stewart in WASHINGTON and Nayera Abdallah in CAIRO; Geert de Clercq in PARISWriting by Christian LoweEditing by Mike Collett-White