The Israeli army said it shot down a Syrian fighter jet that allegedly crossed into the occupied Golan Heights as heavy fighting continued between the Syrian military and the last rebel holdouts in the country’s southwest.
Spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the Syrian Sukhoi fighter jet flew towards Israel at “relatively high speed” before breaching the country’s airspace.
He said it was unknown if the plane deliberately crossed into Israel, and there was no immediate information about the fate of its pilots.
The military monitored the advance of the aircraft and shot it down with a pair of Patriot missiles after it entered Israeli airspace by about two kilometers. The plane crashed in the southern part of the Syrian Golan Heights, Conricus said.
Syrian state media said the fighter jet was targeted in Syrian airspace while conducting raids against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other fighters in southern Syria.
“The Israeli enemy confirms its support for the armed terrorist groups and targets one of our warplanes, which was striking their groups in the area of Saida, on the edge of the Yarmouk Valley in Syrian airspace,” Syrian news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying.
The incident comes during a Russia-backed Syrian offensive to retake parts of southern Syria the Bashar al-Assad government lost to rebels during the civil war that started in 2011.
Syrian state media said government forces reached the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights after capturing territory – the first time they took up positions there since the 2011 uprising.
“Since the morning hours, there has been an increase in the internal fighting in Syria, including an increase in the activity of the Syrian Air Force,” the Israeli army said in a statement.
Israel is concerned the Syrian military will enter a buffer zone established in 1974 that borders the Golan Heights. Israel’s military will “continue to operate against” any breach of the 1974 UN armistice deal that established buffer zones on the Golan, the statement said.
Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations Middle East envoy, urged all sides to abide by the 1974 truce, highlighting “a disturbing trajectory of increasingly frequent and dangerous confrontations” between Israel and Syria.
“I call on all parties to abide by all the provisions of the 1974 agreement and support the role of UNDOF in that regard,” Mladenov told the UN Security Council, referring to the UN Disengagement and Observer Force that monitors a 1974 Israeli-Syrian accord.
Tuesday’s incident is the first downing of a Syrian jet since a US Navy F-18 Super Hornet shot one down over Syria in June 2017 after the Syrian plane fired on US-backed Syrian forces.
The intensifying Israeli-Syrian tensions have prompted intercession by Russia, which sent its top diplomat and top general on Monday for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli officials said Netanyahu rebuffed as insufficient a Russian offer to keep Iranian forces fighting alongside Syria’s military 100km away from Golan.
Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and annexed the territory in a move that was never internationally recognised.