Russian jet shot down in Syria by group linked to former al Qaeda branch, pilot killed

Syrians opposed to Assad see Russia as an invading force they blame for the deaths of thousands of civilians since Moscow joined the war on the side of the Syrian government in 2015.

world Updated: Feb 04, 2018 18:44 IST
Agencies, Saraqib (Syria)
Russian Jet,Syria,Syrian rebels
A picture taken on February 3 shows the wing of a downed Sukhoi-25 fighter jet in Syria's northwest province of Idlib.(AFP)

A Russian warplane was shot down in Syria on Saturday and its pilot killed on the ground after he ejected from the plane, Russia’s defence ministry and Syrian rebels said.

A jihadist group linked to the former branch of al Qaeda in Syria claimed responsibility for shooting down the Russian SU-25 warplane with a shoulder launched anti-aircraft missile.

The group Tahrir al-Sham released a statement on social media quoting a commander in charge of its air defences as saying one of its fighters had hit the jet during an air raid over the city of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib. Tahrir al-Sham includes the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, which served as al Qaeda’s Syrian branch.

Idlib province has seen heavy air strikes and fighting on the ground between government forces backed by Russia and Iran, and rebels who oppose President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrians opposed to Assad see Russia as an invading force they blame for the deaths of thousands of civilians since Moscow joined the war on the side of the Syrian government in 2015.

Although the Russian pilot escaped the crash, he was killed by rebels who had tried to capture him, a source said.

“This work is the least we can do to revenge our people. Let the criminal invaders know that our skies are not a picnic and they will not pass through without paying a price God willing,” senior Tahrir al-Sham commander Mahmoud Turkomani said in a statement released by the group.

Russia’s defence ministry also said that the aircraft was downed by a portable surface-to-air missile. The pilot reported that he had ejected by parachute, and he was later killed on the ground.

“The pilot died in a fight with terrorists,” it said.

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.

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.

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.

Syria’s civil war, which is now entering its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes.

A Russian plane was blamed for the death of seven civilians and scores of injuries after cars were targeted on the highway, according to a witness and two rebels sources.

Syrian soldiers and Iranian-backed militiamen were now around twelve kilometres from Saraqeb, advancing towards the Damascus-Aleppo highway under cover of heavy Russian air strikes, two opposition sources said.

At least five civilians were killed in Saraqeb city on Saturday, which residents blamed on Russian planes.

Syrians in rebel-held areas say they can distinguish between Russian warplanes and those of the Syrian air force, because the Russian planes fly at higher altitude.

Residents say thousands of people have been forced by air strikes to flee the area, moving further north to the safety of makeshift camps on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.

Russia’s defence ministry regularly says it targets only hardline Islamist militants in Syria.

First Published: Feb 04, 2018 08:47 IST