BEIRUT – Syrian rebels circulated dramatic video Monday of what they claimed was the downing of a warplane 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 or the claims could not be independently verified. If the rebels did bring down their first aircraft, that could signal a significant jump in their firepower and give opposition forces their highest-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 fronts such as Aleppo, the country’s largest city and the scene of fierce attacks to dislodge rebel positions.
As the sun was setting on Monday, an Associated Press reporter saw two fighter jets over the village of Marea, 20 miles north of Aleppo.
Terrified residents collected on street corners and near the doors to their houses to watch and point as the jets dived low, dropping bombs that sent up clouds of smoke and firing machine guns that crackled over the village.
On one crowded market street, a handful of rebels with rifles ran toward the site of the bombings.
“What are you going to do, bring down a jet with a rifle?” a man screamed.
After the jets left, young men on motorcycles rushed to the bombing site on the edge of the village to find two craters the size of cars in a dirt field next to a swimming pool.
A man working at the privately owned pool said only three people were there at the time and that none was injured. He didn’t give his name and tried to chase away journalists and residents seeking to film the pool.
It is unclear why the area was targeted. Residents said there was no rebel base nearby.
The claims of bringing down the warplane and capturing the pilot are likely to become a key propaganda tool to rally rebel fighters.
Activists released a video which 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.
The possibility of a high-ranking military captive also could raise pressure on Assad’s regime after a series of abductions, including 48 Iranians taken earlier this month and 11 Lebanese Shiites seized in May.