Russian Ilyushin 20 (IL-20) Jet Image Credit: Supplied

Moscow: The Russian military announced that an Israeli raid on Syria triggered a chain of events that led to its Il-20 plane being shot down by a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile.

A statement by the Russian Defence Ministry said four Israeli F-16 fighter jets attacked targets in Syria’s Latakia after approaching from the Mediterranean, at a low altitude and “created a dangerous situation for other aircraft and vessels in the region.” 

“The Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as cover and set it up to be targeted by the Syrian air defense forces. As a consequence, the Il-20, which has radar cross-section much larger than the F-16, was shot down by an S-200 system missile,” the statement said.

Russia threatened to retaliate against Israel for what it described as a hostile act.

The ministry said it held Israel responsible because, at the time of the incident, Israeli fighter jets were mounting air attacks on Syria targets and had only given Moscow one minute's warning, putting the Russian aircraft in danger of being caught in the cross-fire.

A Russian military jet carrying 14 servicemen vanished from radar over the Mediterranean Sea late Monday as Syria came under attack by Israeli missiles, the defence ministry said.

"Connection has been lost with the crew of a Russian Il-20 plane over the Mediterranean Sea 35 kilometres from the Syrian coast as it was returning to the Hmeimim airbase," the Russian defence ministry said early Tuesday.

"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, while France denied any involvement in the plane's disappearance.

“We deny any involvement," Colonel Patrik Steiger, a spokesman for France's military, told Reuters.

Fate unknown

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.

The ministry said that the jet had gone off the radar around 11pm Monday (midnight UAE) during an attack by four Israeli F-16 jets over Syrian infrastructure in the province of Latakia, a stronghold of President Bashar Assad.

RIA Novosti news agency, citing a security source, said that Syrian anti-defence systems had countered a rocket attack.

'Downed by Syrians'

A US government official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said it believed the plane, used for electronic reconnaissance, was downed by Syrian anti-aircraft artillery.

The defence ministry in Moscow said the aircraft was returning to the Russian-run Hmeymim airbase in Latakia province when it disappeared from radar screens.

"The plane was over the Mediterranean Sea about 35 km from the Syrian coastline," Russia's TASS news agency quoted the ministry as saying in a statement.

The Ilyushin 20 (IL-20) surveillance turboprop plane is an electronic Intelligence (ELINT) platform, equipped with a wide range of antennas, infrared and optical sensors.

The aircraft's SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and the plane's satellite link allows the Russian military to monitor Syrian skies in real time.

Russian radars also registered the launch of missiles from a French frigate in the Mediterranean on the evening of September 17, according to Russian media.

Attacks on Latakia

An hour-long attack on Latakia began around 10pm local time, and targeted a power station as well as two facilities belonging to the Syrian military. Syrian officials said the attack was “foreign” and came “from the sea,” but could not initially confirm rumours that Israel was behind it. 

Missiles were fired from the sea at several locations in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia on Monday but were intercepted by air defences, Syrian state media said.

The official SANA news agency said the Technical Industry Institution in the state-controlled city had been targeted. SANA added that it was not immediately known who fired the missiles.

"Air defences have confronted enemy missiles coming from the sea in the direction of the Latakia city, and intercepted a number of them," SANA quoted a military source as saying.

State-run Ikhbariya TV said 10 people were injured in the attack. Eight were discharged shortly after being admitted to a nearby hospital.

The source of the missiles was not immediately clear. Israel has launched frequent attacks in Syria.

On Saturday, Syrian air defences reportedly downed several missiles that Israel fired near Damascus airport, state media reported.

Syrian air defence batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus international airport. AFP

When asked for comment about Monday's attack, an Israeli military spokeswoman said Israel do not comment on foreign reports.

During the Israeli cabinet weekly meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country will "constantly take action to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with advanced weaponry".

A costy war for Russia

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 Assad, in his fight against rebels.

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 programme in April in retaliation for a suspected poison attack.

The French frigate Aquitaine was involved in those strikes.