MOSCOW (AP) – The Russian Defense Ministry announced on Friday that the Israeli Air Force nearly shot down a passenger plane in Syria the day before during a rocket attack on the Damascus suburbs.
The allegation stems from tensions in Syria, where fighting escalated in the northern province of Idlib. The Syrian government forces supported by the Russian military have argued with Turkish troops supporting the opposition there after failing to honor a ceasefire.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister of Israel did not respond to a request for comment. Israel rarely admits strikes in Syria. Israel has repeatedly hit Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria in recent years and has vowed to act against the increasing Iranian influence in its neighboring country.
The news of the alleged near-accident came just a month after a Ukrainian passenger plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran and killed all 176 people on board. Iran said the plane was wrongly shot down by its paramilitary revolutionary guard.
In a statement released on Friday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the strike had been carried out on Thursday at around 2 a.m. local time. He said four Israeli F-16 fighters hit the suburbs of Damascus with eight missiles, ignoring the fact that a passenger plane with 172 civilians was preparing for the city’s airport at the same time.
Konashenkov gave neither the airline nor the flight number, and only said that it was an Airbus-320 en route from Tehran, “close to the area of a deadly anti-aircraft missile and artillery fire”.
He said the plane had to make an emergency landing at Hmeimeem Air Base, which is operated by the Russian military and is located approximately 300 kilometers north of Damascus.
The Associated Press was unable to independently review the Russian claims.
FlightRadar24, an air traffic tracking website, featured Syrian airline Cham Wings Flight 514 – an Airbus 320-211 – taking off from Najaf on Thursday morning at 1:07 a.m. local time. It can be seen approaching Damascus about an hour later before turning and diverting its course north. It appears to have landed in or near Hmeimeem half an hour later. Flightradar24 listed the arrival time and destination as unknown.
The airline made no immediate comment. The U.S. Treasury Department put Cham Wings on its sanctions list in 2016 for allegedly transporting fighters to Syria to fight for the Syrian government and to transport weapons and equipment to aid them in the nine-year conflict.
In the statement, the Russian military accused Israel of endangering the “lives of hundreds of innocent civilians”.
“Scheduled air traffic in Syrian airspace and around the world takes place on well-known high-altitude flights and is clearly captured by Israel’s radar equipment,” said Konashenkov.
This is not the first time that Russia has accused Israel of “irresponsible actions” in Syria. In September 2018, the Ministry of Defense announced that the Israeli armed forces had not adequately warned Moscow of a strike and had placed a Russian Il-20 military plane in the line of fire of Syrian missile defense systems. The plane was shot down and 15 people on board were killed.
El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Joe Krauss contributed to Jerusalem.