JERUSALEM: The Israeli military shot down an Iranian drone it said infiltrated the country early Saturday before launching a “large-scale attack” on at least a dozen Iranian and Syrian targets inside Syria. Responding anti-aircraft fire led to the downing of an Israeli fighter jet, reports AP.
Israel said the drone infiltration was a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty” and warned of further action against unprecedented Iranian aggression.
The military said its planes faced massive anti-aircraft fire from Syria that forced two pilots to abandon an F-16 jet that crashed in northern Israel.One pilot was seriously wounded and the other lightly. Syrian officials reported large explosions in the center of the country and the Syrian counter fire set off warning sirens throughout northern Israel.
The Israeli strikes marked its most significant engagement since the fighting in neighboring Syria began in 2011 and said Iran would be held responsible for its outcome. “This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said in a special statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”
Gen. Hossein Salami, acting commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, did not acknowledge Israel’s claim it shot down the drone. “We do not confirm any such news from Israel,” he said. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasem called the Israeli claim “ridiculous.”
But the joint operations room for the Syrian military and its allies denied the drone violated Israeli airspace, saying it was on a regular mission gathering intelligence on Islamic State militants. Syria’s Defense Ministry said in statements on its website that its air defenses responded successfully to the Israeli operation and hit more than one plane. “The Israeli enemy has once again attacked some of our military bases in the southern area and our air defenses responded and foiled the aggression,” it said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman were convening the top brass at military headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss further response. Israel has mostly stayed out of the prolonged fighting in Syria, wary of being drawn into a war in which nearly all the parties are hostile toward it. It has recently been warning of the increased Iranian presence along its border, but military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Saturday’s incident marked the most “blatant and severe violation of Israeli sovereignty” yet.
He said Israel has no interest in further escalation but that it would “extract a heavy price” for such aggression.
Conricus said Iran was “playing with fire” by infiltrating Israeli airspace, and said the unmanned aircraft Israel shot down was “on a military mission sent and operated by Iranian military forces.” He said Israel recovered the dispatched drone, which was clearly Iranian.
In response, Conricus said Israeli jets destroyed the Iranian site in central Syria that launched it. Upon their return, the jets came under heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and the pilots of one of the F-16s had to escape and the plane crashed. It’s unclear whether the plane was actually struck or if the pilots abandoned their mission for a different reason. If the plane was in fact shot down by enemy fire, it could mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war. Regardless, Damascus residents celebrated the news.
Wassim Elias, 39, a government employee, called it retribution for the many Israeli raids on Syrian soil before. “This earned the Syrian army and every Syrian citizen prestige. This is what we have always demanded,” he said.