Russia has begun stepping up operations off the coast of Syria following the downing of a military aircraft, media outlets in Cyprus reported on Thursday. Russia reportedly decided to close areas near Cyprus to air, land and sea movement from Thursday until next Wednesday for the sake of military operations. Sources in Israel confirmed the report.
Fifteen Russian troops were killed on Monday when a military plane was mistakenly shot down by Syrian air defenses in the Latakia area. After the incident, the Israeli military issued an unusual statement confirming that it had conducted an air strike on a Syrian military facility containing systems for producing precision weapons for Iran and Hezbollah.
An Israeli military statement held Syria fully responsible for the incident, saying that Syrian anti-aircraft batteries fired indiscriminately, "and from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air."
Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot expressed on Thursday sorrow over the downed Russian jet, and said Israel will continue its "uncompromising work to ensure the state's security.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Israel was not responsible. "It looks like a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli plane didn't shoot down our jet," he said.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday he agrees with Putin that this was "a tragic mistake," but laid the blame on Syria. "The Assad army is responsible for this tragic mistake." Syria "has an army, air defenses, irresponsible and unskilled people who operated when Israel Air Force planes were already in Israeli airspace." The defense minister said Israel is willing to give Moscow any information it has on the incident. "We have nothing to hide."
Putin's comments were a shift in tone after Russia accused Israel of a "hostile provocation." Earlier on Tuesday, Russia's Defense Ministry accused Israeli military planes of creating a "dangerous" situation in Latakia, near where the aircraft was downed by Syrian air defense systems, as it claimed Israel warned Moscow about the planned operation one minute beforehand, adding that it was not enough time to get the the plane to safety.
The Defense Ministry said 15 Russian military service people died because of Israel's "irresponsible actions," adding that it reserves the right to take appropriate measures after Israel's hostile actions.
According to the ministry, the Israeli F-16 jets carrying out the airstrikes used the Russian plane as a cover to allow them to approach their targets on the ground without being hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
An Israel Defense Forces delegation headed by the commander of the air force, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin departed Thursday to Moscow to present the findings of its inquiry into the incident.