Russia’s defence ministry says one of its military aircraft with 14 people on board disappeared from radar screens over the Mediterranean at the same time as Israeli and French forces were mounting aerial attacks on targets in Syria.
- A US official disputed Russia’s version of events, blaming Syrian forces
- The fate of the 14 people on board the missing plane remains unknown
- It comes as Russia and Turkey agreed to establish a buffer zone in Idlib
A US 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 defence batteries responded, Syrian state media reported.
Russsia’s Defence Ministry said the aircraft was returning to the Russian-run Hmeymim airbase in Latakia province when it disappeared from radar screens at about 11:00pm Moscow time.
The plane was over the Mediterranean Sea about 35 kilometres 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.”
The fate of the 14 people on board the missing plane is unknown, and a rescue operation has been organised out of the Hmeymim base, the ministry said.
DMZ to be set up in Idlib, delaying offensive
Meanwhile, the leaders of Russia and Turkey have agreed to establish a demilitarised zone in Syria’s Idlib region, the last major stronghold of anti-government rebels, where fears have been running high of a devastating offensive by government forces.
The zone will be established by October 15 and be 15 to 20 kilometres deep, with troops from Russia and NATO member Turkey conducting coordinated patrols, President Vladimir Putin said after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.
The deal marked a significant agreement between the two leaders and effectively delays an offensive by Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies, one that Turkey fears would create a humanitarian crisis near its border.
Mr Putin said “radical militants” such as the Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham would have to withdraw from the zone.
The group denies it is linked to Al Qaeda.
Asked whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government agreed with the plan, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters in Sochi that “in the coming hours, we will agree with them on all the positions put forth in this document”.
In recent weeks, Russian officials have repeatedly said that rebels in Idlib were preparing a chemical weapons attack that could be blamed on the Syrian Government and prompt a retaliatory strike by the West.
Turkey had appealed to Russia and Iran, its uneasy negotiating partners, for a diplomatic resolution. At the same time, it has sent reinforcements to its troops ringing Idlib, a move designed to ward off a ground assault, at least for now.