By Oren Liebermann, Amir Tal and James Masters, CNN
The Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet after it entered Israeli airspace on Tuesday afternoon, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said, raising fears of further military escalation in the region.
The Russian-made Sukhoi jet entered two kilometers into Israeli airspace when two Patriot missiles were launched to intercept the aircraft, the IDF said. The missiles hit the jet once it had crossed back into Syrian airspace, the IDF said, adding that the military did not know what happened to the pilot of the aircraft.
Syria said its jet was conducting an operation against “terrorist groups” when it was hit by Israeli fire, according to a state media report.
“The Israeli enemy targeted one of our warplanes while conducting air raids against these groups in the area of Saida on the outskirts of al-Yarmouk Basin in the Syrian airspace,” a Syrian state TV banner said, quoting a military source.
Yarmouk basin is one of the last remaining areas in southern Syria not yet under government control. Syrian forces, backed by the Russian military, have been carrying out an extensive campaign in the area in recent days, attempting to wrest control from an ISIS affiliate that is clinging on to a small pocket of territory.
Israel said there had been a notable increase in activity by the Syrian military in the area on Tuesday, especially the Syrian air force, as a result of ongoing internal fighting in the war-torn country.
Before it launched its strike, Israel communicated with Russia to make sure the jet was Syrian, and not part of the Russian air force, according to IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus. So-called “deconfliction measures” have been in place between the two countries since Russian forces entered Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.
The jet was either a Sukhoi 22 or Sukhoi 24, the IDF said Tuesday. Both jets are Russian-made aircraft developed in the 1960s and 1970s and operated by the Syrian air force.
Israel last shot down a Syrian fighter jet in September 2014 under similar circumstances. The IDF said that jet — a Sukhoi 24 — had entered one kilometer into Israeli airspace before it was downed by a single Patriot missile. The pilot and co-pilot ejected and landed in Syria.
In February, Syria shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet which came under “massive anti-aircraft fire,” the IDF said at the time. The incident happened after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace, prompting Israeli airstrikes against Syria during which the fighter jet was downed.
Both pilots aboard the Israeli jet ejected. One pilot was severely injured during the ejection, while the second was lightly wounded.