MOSCOW – A Russian reconnaissance aircraft was brought down by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean, killing all 15 people on board, the Russian defense ministry said Tuesday. It blamed Israel for the crash, saying the plane was caught in the crossfire as four Israeli fighters attacked targets in northwestern Syria.
The Russian military said that the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was hit 35 kilometers (22 miles) off the coast late Monday as it was returning to its home base nearby.
"The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian defense," Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
Russian state television quoted a Defense Ministry statement as saying that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, that Israel is "fully to blame" for the deaths.
The military said Israel did not warn it of its operation over Latakia province until one minute before the strike, which did not give the Russian plane enough time to escape.
A recovery operation in the Mediterranean Sea is underway, Konashenkov said.
Russian news agencies later in the day quoted the ministry as saying that a rescue team has located the wreckage in the sea and has retrieved some bodies and some fragments of the wreckage.
Both the Israeli military and Israel's Foreign Ministry declined comment on the Russian claim.
For several years, Israel and Russia have maintained a special hotline to prevent their air forces from clashing in the skies over Syria. Israeli military officials have previously praised its effectiveness.
Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and it has two military bases in the country, including one close to the Mediterranean coast.
Russia's dramatic entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 in support of the Syrian government, after a year of airstrikes by the U.S. and its coalition partners against the Islamic State group, increased the specter of dangerous confrontations in the skies over Syria.
Turkey's troops are also on the ground in northern Syria and are patrolling the skies over the region as Ankara seeks to ramp up its influence there and curb the expansion of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory.
Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But it has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes against archenemy Iran and its Shiite proxy Hezbollah.
Israel has also acknowledged attacking Iranian targets some 200 times. Israel has warned that it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in postwar Syria.
Throughout the fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained continuous contact with Russia. Netanyahu frequently travels to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syria issue.
Sima Shine, a former senior Mossad official and ex-deputy director-general at the Strategic Affairs Ministry, told Israel's Army Radio station that the shooting down is problematic both militarily and internally from a Russian perspective.
"I think it will impose very serious restriction on Israel's freedom of activity," she said.
Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to say the plane came down late Monday, not early Tuesday.