AMMAN/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Syrian rebels shot down a Russian warplane on Saturday and killed its pilot on the ground after he ejected from the plane, Russia’s defense ministry and Syrian rebels said.
The incident took place in an area of Syria’s northern Idlib province that 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.
The Russian plane was shot down over the town of Khan al-Subl near the city of Saraqeb, close to a major highway where the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias are trying to advance, a rebel source said.
Although the Russian pilot escaped the crash, he was killed by rebels who had tried to capture him, the source said.
“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 had shown on social media what they said was the wreckage of the plane and the body of the pilot surrounded by rebels.
They said the downed warplane was one of the planes used to target 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 kilometers 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.