Israel downs Syrian aircraft attacking rebels on Golan Heights

Israel on Tuesday shot down a Syrian fighter jet that it said had flown into Israeli-controlled airspace over the Golan Heights.

The Russian-made Sukhoi-24 fighter was targeted with a U.S.-supplied Patriot ground-to-air missile after it had “infiltrated into Israeli airspace,” the Israeli army said.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War and later annexed the territory, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel.

An unidentified senior military official told Israel Radio said that the downed plane was apparently on a mission against Syrian rebels who in recent weeks have seized areas near the frontier with the Israeli-held Golan.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said that the plane had penetrated about half a mile into Israeli-controlled airspace and was hit over Syrian territory after it had turned back.

“The timing is split-second, and the area is so small that there is little room for mistake. That’s why immediate interception is required,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group in Britain that monitors the civil war in Syria, said the warplane had been bombing areas outside Quneitra, a Syrian town near the Golan frontier, and that the pilot had bailed out.

Errant shells and gunshots from the fighting in Syria have occasionally hit Israeli-controlled territory in the Golan, drawing Israeli fire, but Tuesday’s incident was the first reported overflight by a Syrian warplane. A Syrian drone was downed by an Israeli Patriot missile over the Golan last month.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that Israel “will not allow any element _ neither a state nor a terrorist group _ to threaten our security and violate our sovereignty.”

Suggesting that the Syrian plane may have strayed across the frontier, Yaalon warned that Israel would respond firmly to perceived threats “whether they stemmed from a mistake or were deliberate.”

Syria confirmed that Israel had shot down one of its aircraft, calling it an act of aggression.

Syrian television quoted a military source as saying that the downing of the plane, following airstrikes led by the United States against targets of the Islamic State in northwestern Syria, was part of Israel’s “support for the terrorist (Islamic State) and the Nusra Front.”

The Nusra Front is an al Qaida-linked rebel group involved in recent fighting with Syrian troops near the Golan frontier. Eight of its bases were targeted in U.S. strikes Tuesday aimed at an affiliated unit, the Khorashan group, that U.S. officials said was plotting attacks on the West. Late last month, Nusra attacked positions of United Nations peacekeepers stationed between Israeli and Syrian lines on the Golan and seized 45 Fijian U.N. troops, holding them for two weeks before releasing them unharmed.

The last time Israel downed a manned Syrian aircraft was in 1985, when Israeli jets on a surveillance mission over Lebanon shot down two approaching Syrian MiG-23 fighters.