Russia says Israeli strike in Syria jeopardized civilian jet

by Associated Press
February 10, 2020 5:05 AM

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday that a passenger jetliner in Syria was endangered by Israeli fighter jets that used it as shield while striking the suburbs of Damascus the previous day.

The allegation comes as tensions run high in Syria, where fighting has escalated in the northern province of Idlib. Syrian government forces, backed by the Russian military, have clashed with Turkish troops that support the opposition there after failing to observe a cease-fire.

A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister did not respond to a request for comment. Israel rarely acknowledges strikes carried out in Syria. Israel has repeatedly struck Syrian and Iran-linked targets in Syria in recent years and has vowed to push back against increasing Iranian influence in its neighboring country.

The news of the alleged near-miss came amid jitters just a month after a Ukrainian passenger plane crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. Iran said the plane was mistakenly shot down by its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

In a statement released Friday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the strike was carried around 2 a.m. local time Thursday. He said that four Israeli F-16 fighter jets used a passenger plane preparing to land in Damascus as cover while they hit the suburbs of Damascus with eight missiles.

Konashenkov didn’t name the airline or flight number, saying only that it was an Airbus-320 en route from Tehran with 172 people on board that “came near to entering the zone of a deadly anti-aircraft missile and artillery fire.”

He said that thanks to quick action by Syrian flight controllers, the plane was diverted to Russia's Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia about 215 kilometers (about 135 miles) north of Damascus, where it landed safely.

“Using civilian planes carrying passengers as a cover to block retaliation from the Syrian air defense has become a signature tactic of the Israeli air force,” Konashenkov said.

The Associated Press wasn't able to independently verify the Russian claims.

FlightRadar24, a website that provides tracking of air traffic, showed Syrian airline Cham Wings Flight 514 — an Airbus320-211 — taking off from Najaf at 1:07 a.m. local time Thursday morning. It can be seen approaching Damascus about an hour later before turning back and diverting its course to the north. It appears to have landed in or near Hmeimeem a half hour later. Flightradar24 listed the arrival time and destination as unknown.

The airline offered no immediate comment. The U.S. Treasury placed Cham Wings on its sanctions list in 2016 for allegedly transporting militants to Syria to fight on behalf of the Syrian government and for moving weapons and equipment to aid it in the nine-year conflict.

In the statement, the Russian military accused Israel of endangering the “lives of hundreds of innocent civilians.”

“Scheduled airline traffic in the Syrian air space, as well as everywhere in the world, takes place on well-known altitude flight levels and is clearly detected by Israel’s radar equipment,” Konashenkov said.

This is not the first time Russia has blamed Israel for “irresponsible actions” in Syria. In September 2018, the Defense Ministry said Israeli forces failed to give Moscow enough warning about a strike and put a Russian military Il-20 plane in the line of fire of Syrian anti-missile systems. The plane was shot down and 15 people on board were killed.

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Sarah El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Joe Krauss in Jerusalem contributed.

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This story has been corrected to show that the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said that the airliner was on its approach to Damascus airport while Syrian anti-aircraft units were firing to repel an Israeli attack, not that Israeli military aircraft nearly shot down the passenger plane.