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This image grab taken from a video released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on February 6 shows an explosion following an Israeli air strike on an undisclosed location in Syria. Image Credit: AFP

Moscow: An Airbus A320 jet carrying 172 passengers was nearly shot down on its approach to the Syrian capital, Damascus, shortly after 2am Thursday after Syria fired antiaircraft missiles in response to an attack, according to a Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, Russian news agencies reported Friday.

Russia accused the Israeli regime’s air force of using the passenger plane as a shield from Syrian air defences, mirroring an incident in 2018 in which Syrian air defences accidentally shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane, killing 15 Russian servicemen.

Thursday’s incident underlined the continued danger that Israel’s regular air strikes over Syria targeting what Israeli officials claim are Iranian assets in the country could spiral into a major international confrontation.

The plane was diverted safely to Russia’s nearby Khmeimim military air base, and landed safely said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.

On Thursday, Israeli warplanes launched air strikes at targets in southern Syria, according to Syrian state media. Konashenkov said the incident followed air strikes launched by four Israeli F-16 fighter jets.

The incident comes a month after a Ukrainian passenger jet was shot down by a missile launched by Iran, shortly after taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew.

The Ukrainian jet was hit by a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the tense hours after Iran fired retaliatory strikes at US positions in Iraq after the United States killed a senior Iranian commander, Qasem Soleimani.

According to Konashenkov, Israeli fighter jets fired eight missiles at targets near Damascus early Thursday and Syria forces fired antiaircraft missile defence systems.

“It was purely thanks to the prompt actions of air traffic controllers at Damascus airport and the effective operation of the automated air traffic control system that the Airbus 320 passenger plane was promptly rerouted from the Syrian air defence area of engagement and safely landed at the nearest reserve airfield - the Russian air base Khmeimim,” he said.

He did not name the airliner that was flying from Tehran to Damascus but information from flight tracker Flight Radar indicated it was likely a Syrian Cham Wings aircraft.

Konashenkov said the use of civilian aircraft as a shield to deter Syrian forces from responding to attacks was “becoming a signature feature of the Israeli Air Force. Unfortunately, such operations of Israeli strategists do not care in the slightest about the lives of hundreds of absolutely innocent civilians.”

In September 2018, Russia blamed Israel when Syrian forces shot down a Russian military plane while responding to an Israeli strike over Syrian airspace. Israel said that Syria bore full responsibility for the incident.

The 2018 incident caused a spike in Russian-Israeli tensions over Syria and prompted Russia to deploy its own S-300 surface to air missiles in Syria to bolster its defences.

However, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Russian President Vladimir Putin to express his sorrow over the incident, Putin described it as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

Israel does not normally comment on its actions in Syria, however the Israeli regime confirmed recently that they have launched attacks in Syria to prevent Iran from entrenching there.

Konashenkov said the passenger flight should have been clearly visible to Israeli radars.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said air strikes Thursday hit the positions of Iran-backed militia, killing 23 people, including Syrian and Iranian fighters.

In recent weeks Syrian forces backed by Russian air strikes and Iran-backed fighters have mounted attacks in the northwest of the country in a bid to crush the last stronghold of opposition to Bashar Al Assad’s government.