Pi­lot killed as Syr­ian rebels shoot down Rus­sian jet for the first time

Moscow claims air­man ejected from plane and died while re­sist­ing cap­ture by ji­hadists ‘0ppo­si­tion ac­tivists claimed he was al­ready dead by the time fighters reached him’

The Sunday Telegraph - - World news - By Raf Sanchez MID­DLE EAST COR­RE­SPON­DENT

SYR­IAN rebels shot down a Rus­sian war­plane for the first time yes­ter­day, and Rus­sia’s de­fence min­istry said the pi­lot was killed as he re­sisted cap­ture by ji­hadists.

The Su-25 was de­stroyed over the rebel-held north-western prov­ince of Idlib as it pro­vided air sup­port to pro-As­sad regime forces at­tack­ing the city of Saraqeb.

Video footage showed the Rus­sian jet ma­noeu­vring over Idlib and then a para­chute emerg­ing af­ter it was hit.

“The pi­lot had enough time to an­nounce he had ejected into the zone, un­der the con­trol of Al-Nusra Front fighters,” the Rus­sian de­fence min­istry said, re­fer­ring to a ji­hadist group linked to al-Qaeda. “The pi­lot was killed in fight­ing against ter­ror­ists.”

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights (SOHR) also said the pi­lot was killed as he re­sisted be­ing taken cap­tive.

But sev­eral op­po­si­tion ac­tivists claimed the air­man was al­ready dead by the time rebel fighters reached him, and he ap­peared to have died dur­ing his ejec­tion from the air­craft.

A pho­to­graph cir­cu­lated by rebel groups showed a blood­ied corpse wear­ing a white uni­form.

The pi­lot was not of­fi­cially iden­ti­fied, but a Rus­sian let­ter re­port­edly found on his body rec­om­mended that a Ma­jor Ro­man Fil­lipov Niko­lae­vich be awarded for his role dur­ing the Syr­ian cam­paign.

No group im­me­di­ately claimed credit for bring­ing down the Rus­sian jet. A num­ber of rebel fac­tions are op­er­at­ing in the area, in­clud­ing Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is linked to al-Qaeda.

Rebels have suc­cess­fully shot down Syr­ian regime jets in the past, but yes­ter­day marked the first time that a Rus­sian war­plane was brought down by op­po­si­tion ground fire.

In Au­gust 2016, a Rus­sian mil­i­tary he­li­copter was shot down over Syria and all five peo­ple on board were killed.

Ori­ent News, an op­po­si­tion me­dia out­let, claimed that the jet was shot down with an Igla anti-air­craft missile, a shoul­der-fired weapon which can be car­ried by one sol­dier. The rebels have been known to use such weapons – known as man-por­ta­ble air-de­fence sys­tems (MANPADS) – in the past, but it is not clear who would have sup­plied them to the ji­hadists.

Western coun­tries have long been wary of sup­ply­ing rebels with MANPADS for fear they would fall into ji­hadist hands and could one day be used against Western civil­ian or mil­i­tary air­craft. Michael Horowitz, a se­nior an­a­lyst at the Le Beck geopo­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy, said the in­ci­dent was not “a game changer”, as the Su-25 flies low in sup­port of ground troops and is there­fore vul­ner­a­ble to anti-air­craft fire.

“On the tac­ti­cal level it could change things be­cause the Rus­sian are prob­a­bly not go­ing to use the Su-25 as much. But on the strate­gic level I don’t think it’s go­ing to change any­thing it terms of mil­i­tary bal­ance even in this spe­cific area. The of­fen­sive will prob­a­bly con­tinue and pro-regime forces will prob­a­bly be able to con­tinue to ad­vance on Saraqeb,” he said.

Rus­sia has been fight­ing in Syria since Septem­ber 2015 and its in­ter­ven­tion has de­ci­sively swung the tide of war in favour of the As­sad regime.

The regime has also ben­e­fited from sup­port by Iran and its proxy, the Le­banese mil­i­tant group Hizbol­lah.

‘0ppo­si­tion ac­tivists claimed he was al­ready dead by the time fighters reached him’

A rebel fighter takes a pic­ture of the downed Rus­sian Sukhoi-25 fighter jet. The pi­lot ejected from the plane and there were claims that he was killed as he re­sisted cap­ture

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