BEIRUT

Middle East

Syria rebels capture pilot of downed warplane

Syrian rebels and civilians walk on the remains of a Syrian government fighter jet which was shot down at Daret Ezza, on the border between the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, on November 28, 2012. AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO LEONG

TOURMANIN, Syria: Syrian rebels captured a regime pilot after shooting down his fighter jet over Daret Ezza, in the northern province of Aleppo, witnesses said.

"Two pilots used parachutes to jump out of the plane after it was hit," a witness told an AFP reporter in Tourmanin, located one kilometre (0.6 miles) from Daret Ezza.

"One of them was taken prisoner," the witness added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog, also said that the rebels had captured one of the pilots.

"A Syrian fighter jet pilot was taken prisoner in Daret Ezza after his plane was downed," said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground.

The plane crashed in an olive grove on a hill some 15 kilometres (10 miles) away from the Turkish border, the reporter said.

Children gathered around smouldering metal at the crash site, as rebels arrived at the scene to celebrate.

"Allahu akbar (God is greatest)!" they cried, as parts of the aircraft continued to burn.

Amateur video shot by activists and posted on YouTube showed clouds of fire and smoke rising from a mass of broken metal parts strewn across a green field.

"This is your airplane, O Bashar," an unidentified man said from behind the camera, in reference to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

"The (rebel) Free Syrian Army has downed it," added the man.

A second amateur video distributed by the Observatory showed a group of men carrying a uniformed man identified as a pilot.

"We want him alive," one man can be heard saying in the video.

"This is the man who was piloting the plane that bombarded the houses of civilians," said another.

The second pilot's whereabouts was not immediately known.

The Ahrar Daret Ezza (Free People of Daret Ezza), a rebel group linked to the FSA, claimed the strike, according to a rebel in Tourmanin.

The jet was the second government aircraft to have been shot down by rebels using missiles in less than 24 hours.

On Tuesday, the insurgents downed an army helicopter for the first time with a newly acquired ground-to-air missile, in what the Observatory said had the potential to change the balance of military power in the conflict.

The gunship was on a strafing run near the besieged northwestern base of Sheikh Suleiman, the last garrison in government hands between Syria's second city and the Turkish border.

Little more than a week ago, the rebels seized tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, 120-mm mortars and rocket launchers when they took the government forces' sprawling Base 46, about 12 kilometres (eight miles) west of Aleppo.

The rebels, a mix of military defectors and armed civilians, are vastly outgunned but analysts say they are now stretching thin the capabilities of Assad's war machine and its air supremacy by opening multiple fronts.

 

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