BEIRUT – Syrian rebels circulated dramatic video Monday of what they claimed was a warplane being brought down and armed men later holding the captured pilot, who ejected as the MiG fighter was engulfed by flames. Syria acknowledged a pilot bailed out of a disabled plane but blamed the crash on a technical malfunction.
The authenticity of the images and the claims could not be independently verified. If the rebels did bring down their first aircraft, that could signal a significant advancement in their firepower and give opposition forces their most high-profile military captive.
But wider questions remain even if the rebel reports are confirmed, including whether this could be just a one-time blow against expanding air offensives by the forces of Bashar Assad’s regime. Just days ago, protesters across Syria pleaded for the rebels’ main backers, including Turkey and Gulf states, to send anti-aircraft weapons for outgunned fighters.
Assad’s military has significantly stepped up aerial attacks in recent weeks. Strafing from warplanes and close-range missile strikes from helicopter gunships have pushed back rebels in key areas such as Aleppo, the country’s largest city and the scene of fierce attacks to dislodge rebel positions.
The relentless bloodshed, including alleged massacres by pro-regime mobs and retaliation killings by rebels, has already claimed more than 20,000 lives, activists say, and will be further examined in a report expected Wednesday by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s independent commission probing abuses in Syria.
In another crack in Assad’s diplomatic corps, a Syrian diplomat who worked with the U.N. human rights council in Geneva said he left his post to join the opposition.
The claims of bringing down the warplane and capturing the pilot, meanwhile, are likely to become a key propaganda tool to rally rebel fighters.
Activists released a video that they say showed a government Soviet-made MiG warplane catching fire after it was hit by ground fire over Deir el-Zour province, an area near the Iraqi border where the opposition has strongholds. Hours later, another video shown on the pan-Arab network Al-Arabiya purported to show the captured pilot surrounded by armed rebels. “Introduce yourself,” said one man with his back to the camera.
The alleged captive identified himself as Col. Rafik Mohammed Suleiman and said he was on a mission to attack a rebel-held area.