Rebels shot down a second Syrian warplane in less than a month on Tuesday and a monitoring group said they captured its pilot in an area near Aleppo where heavy fighting has erupted in recent days despite a cessation of hostilities agreement.
The Syrian army said the jet was shot down with an anti-aircraft missile, which have been long demanded by foreign-backed rebels against devastating aerial raids by Syrian and, since September, Russian forces.
Rebels said the plane was downed with anti-aircraft guns. Their backers, which include Western and Sunni Muslim regional states, have been wary of delivering weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles that could fall into the hands of hardline groups.
Any confirmation the rebels now have the missile equipment would be a major escalation in their weaponry. Syria says an anti-aircraft missile was also used by rebels to shoot down a warplane in western Syria in March.
The aircraft crashed on Tuesday in the Talat al-Iss highland south of Aleppo city, an area where al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents have come under heavy bombardment by Syrian and Russian warplanes since capturing it in recent days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The pilot was seized alive by fighters from al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, the monitoring group said.
Nusra Front later released a video of the wreckage smouldering in an open field, and of the pilot apparently at another location. He gave his name, Khaled Saeed, and said he had carried out bombing runs in the area and was hit by anti-aircraft gunfire.
In a separate statement on Twitter, powerful Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham appeared to take responsibility for the downing of the jet.
Syria’s military said the plane was on a reconnaissance mission when it crashed after being hit by a surface-to-air missile. The pilot survived and efforts were under way to rescue him, it said.
The Observatory also said the plane was mostly likely brought down by an anti-aircraft missile.
Rebels last downed a Syrian jet in the western province of Hama on March 12. Then they also denied a Russian Defence Ministry report they had used an anti-aircraft missile. The Observatory said on that occasion a rebel group had used two heat-seeking missiles.
Ahmed al-Seoud, the head of a Free Syrian Army rebel group operating in northwestern Syria, said on Tuesday: “Not one faction in the opposition has surface-to-air missiles.”
A former rebel commander and army defector, Brigadier General Ahmad Rahal, said he had information that the warplane in Aleppo was brought down by artillery fire.
“The Syrian air force planes are old and so after a certain mileage they need overhaul and are forced to fly at very low altitudes. They risk getting hit” by gunfire, he told Reuters.
Missiles could hit jets flying at a higher altitudes and with greater accuracy.
A Syrian military source said the incident was “a dangerous indication of the weapons the terrorists are obtaining”.
Aerial supremacy has been a major advantage for the Syrian army that has been battling insurgents seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
A fragile truce has held in Syria for more than a month as the various parties try to negotiate an end to the five-year civil war.
But the truce excludes Islamic State and Nusra Front, and air and land attacks by Syrian and allied forces continue in parts of Syria where the government says the groups are present.