Syrian rebels shot down a Russian warplane and killed its pilot on the ground after he ejected from the plane, Russia’s defence ministry and Syrian rebels say.
- Russian Defence Ministry said pilot was killed in fighting with “terrorists”
- The plane was downed on Saturday afternoon local time near the rebel-held town of Saraqeb
- There have been dozens of Russian airstrikes in the area over the past 24 hours
The Sukhoi Su-25 came down in an area of northern Idlib province that has seen heavy air strikes and fighting on the ground between Syria’s government forces backed by Russia and Iran, and rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said the aircraft was downed by a portable surface-to-air missile and the pilot reported that he had ejected by parachute.
The ministry said he was then killed on the ground during “a fight with terrorists”.
The Syrian opposition released footage on social media that purported to show the wreckage of the plane and the body of the pilot surrounded by fighters.
Tharir al-Sham — a jihadist group spearheaded by the former Syrian branch of Al Qaeda — claimed responsibility for shooting down the plane, saying one of its fighters had scored a direct hit with a shoulder launched anti-aircraft missile.
The area where the plane was shot down is controlled by several different rebel groups including Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Turkish backed forces as well as Tharir al-Sham.
It is unclear which group engaged the pilot on the ground, but sources in Syria said it was FSA fighters.
The Russian Defence Ministry said it was trying to recover the pilot’s body.
‘Our skies are not a picnic’
TASS news agency quoted the Russian Defence Ministry as saying Moscow retaliated with a strike from an undisclosed high-precision weapon that killed more than 30 militants in an area of Idlib province where the plane was downed.
Monitoring groups say there have been dozens of Russian airstrikes in the area over the past 24 hours.
Rebels said the downed warplane had taken part in strikes that targeted civilian convoys fleeing along a major Syrian highway from villages that the army and foreign militias had overrun.
At least five civilians were killed in another bombing which residents blamed on Russian jets.
The UN says 100,000 civilians have been displaced from the area in just the past month.
In a statement released on social media, Tharir al-Sham senior commander Mahmoud Turkomani said the aircraft was launching a strike on the city of Saraqeb when they shot it down.
“This work is the least we can do to avenge our people,” he said.
“Let the criminal invaders know that our skies are not a picnic and they will not pass through without paying a price, God willing.”
The US State Department said it had seen reports about the incident and allegations that the United States provided missiles to groups in Syria.
“The United States has never provided MANPAD missiles to any group in Syria, and we are deeply concerned that such weapons are being used,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
“The solution to the violence is a return to the Geneva process as soon as possible and we call on Russia to live up to its commitments in that regard.”
Syria’s state news agency SANA said Syrian troops captured a nearby village and hill, cutting links between Saraqeb and the rebel stronghold of Maarest al-Numan to the south.
Syrian Government forces and their allies launched a push into Idlib six weeks ago, inching closer to a key highway that connects Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
Russia is a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, and has been waging a military campaign on behalf of his forces since 2015.
Russia’s Defence Ministry regularly says it targets only hardline Islamist militants in Syria.
Syria’s civil war, now entering its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes.
Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighters perform during the International Army Games in 2016. (Reuters: Maxim Shemetov)