Syrian government forces mistook the Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane for an Israeli jet and shot it down Monday, killing all 15 people aboard. The Russian military initially blamed the plane's loss on Israel, but President Vladimir Putin later attributed it to "a chain of tragic, fatal circumstances" in which an Israeli fighter jet used the Russian plane as a shield. Israel rejected the claim.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday presented its latest findings on the Il-20's downing, laying the blame squarely on Israel. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement that an Israeli fighter jet flying over Syria's Mediterranean coast shortly before the downing deliberately used the Russian plane as a shield, reflecting "either lack of professionalism or criminal negligence."
He accused Israel of using a hotline set up with Russia to prevent their air forces from clashing over Syria skies to mislead Russia about its plans. He said the Russians were unable to get the Il-20 to a safe place because an Israeli duty officer had misled them, telling them of an Israeli operation in northern Syria while the jets were actually in Latakia, in the country's west.
"We believe that the Israeli Air Force and those who were making decisions about these actions are fully to blame for the tragedy that happened to the Russian Il-20 plane," Konashenkov said. The Israeli military in a statement later on Sunday insisted that the Israelis complied with the hotline procedures and rejected Konashenkov's suggestions that Israeli jets were ultimately to blame for the downing.
The Israeli Air Force "did not hide behind any aircraft," the statement said. "The result of the downing of the Russian plane by Syrian fire is severe and tragic and we convey our condolences to the bereaved families and the Russian people."
For the past several years, Israel and Russia have maintained their "deconfliction line" as Russia has provided key air support to President Bashar Assad's forces since 2015, while Israel has carried out dozens of strikes against Iran-linked forces. Israeli military officials have previously praised the hotline's effectiveness. A high-level Israeli military delegation visiting Moscow on Friday to present detailed information on the downing vowed to improve the hotline.
Konashenkov, who also complained that the Israelis regularly delay notifying Russia of their operations, endangering Russian aircraft, described Israel's actions as "a highly ungrateful response to everything that Russia has done for the State of Israel recently."
He was referring to efforts by Russia to rein in Iran-backed forces in Syria, including a deal struck in July to keep such fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Israel-occupied Golan Heights.
Aron Heller contributed to this report from Jerusalem.