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Syrian conflict

Israel shoots down Syrian jet as Bashar al-Assad’s forces reach Golan Heights

Syrian forces have been battling rebels and IS militants at the frontier with Israel for weeks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 3:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 4:47am

Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet that it said had breached its airspace on Tuesday. The incident came as advancing Syrian government forces retaking territory from rebels reached the Golan Heights frontier for the first time in seven years.

The Israeli military said it monitored the advance of the Syrian Sukhoi fighter jet and shot it down with a pair of Patriot missiles after it penetrated Israeli airspace by about 2 kilometres (1.2 miles).

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Syria’s military, however, said one of its jets was targeted by Israel over Syrian territory as it flew sorties against Islamic State militants.

Syrian forces have been battling rebels and IS militants at the frontier with Israel for weeks in a campaign to restore President Bashar al-Assad’s rule over southwestern Syria.

On Tuesday, government forces reached the border fence where a UN peacekeeping force is deployed at the edge of Golan Heights, which is internationally recognised as Syrian land under illegal occupation by Israel. It was the first time Syrian government had managed to retake the area since 2011, when an uprising swept through Syria against Assad.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. The UN deployed peacekeepers between the two sides in 1974.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the breach of Israeli territory a “gross violation” of a 1974 agreement that established the demilitarised zone between Israel and Syria.

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“I have reiterated and made clear that we will not accept any such violation. We will not accept any such penetration of or spillover into our territory, neither on the ground nor from the air,” he said in a statement.

Israel’s military has been on “elevated alert” along the frontier because of activity on the Syrian side of the fence, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus. Israel has warned Syria through various channels not to violate the 1974 agreement, he added.

The plane flew toward Israel at “relatively high speed” before breaching the country’s airspace, said Conricus. He said it was unknown if the plane deliberately crossed into Israel.

The plane crashed in the southern part of the Syrian Golan Heights, he said. Israel had no reports on the condition of the pilot. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said one pilot was killed and that the condition of the other was unknown.

An official based in Syria and allied with government forces said Islamic State militants have seized the body of the downed pilot. He did not elaborate. The fate of the other pilot remains unknown, said the official.

At the United Nations, Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon said that Israel seeks “no escalation in the region” and that the military acted only after the Syrian aircraft entered Israeli airspace.

The Israeli military tried to contact the plane’s pilot several times but there was no response and its only option was “to protect our civilians”, Danon told reporters.