Syrian rebels claim to shoot down Iranian plane at airport
BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels claimed Thursday they downed an Iranian plane that was landing at Damascus Airport and suspected of carrying weapons and ammunition for the Syrian government.
The statement came as about a dozen students at Damascus University’s architecture college were killed in separate mortar attacks.
The Iranian plane was hit Wednesday by the rebels’ anti-aircraft weaponry, crashed at the airport and exploded, causing a fire at the main terminal, opposition activists said.
Video released by opposition activists showed a large airliner flying before it appeared to be struck with a fireball.
The video and the rebel claim could not be immediately verified independently because the Syrian government restricts the access of outside journalists to conflict zones.
Syrian state media denied the report and instead insisted the airport was operating normally and flights were arriving and departing on schedule.
State television also showed footage from a cafeteria at Damascus University where the floors were soaked with blood following the mortar strike.
State media blamed the attack on the opposition, while activists were divided on whether the mortar fire came from rebels or the army.
“This is the constant situation in Damascus,” said Riyad, an activist who asked to be identified by his first name only for security sake. He blamed the rebels for the shelling, saying: “I’m against this.”
The Syrian capital, which during much of the 2-year-old conflict had been a haven from the violence in the rest of the country, has increasingly come under attack in recent weeks.
The airport has been a target of the rebels for several months and clashes regularly erupt on the highway leading there. While the facility has not been officially closed, few flights now arrive or depart.
“Anything that lands at the airport is targeted,” said Capt. Islam Aloush, with the Islam Brigade, one of the largest rebel groups in Damascus, “because the airport has become solely a military airport.”
Aloush said there was no definitive confirmation the Iranian plane was carrying weapons.
The alleged downing of the plane came just days after Secretary of State John F. Kerry confronted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki for continuing to grant Iran access to its airspace.
U.S. officials believe Iran is sending weapons and fighters to the Syrian government and giving it the military upper-hand in the ongoing conflict with opposition fighters.
Iran has denied supplying the regime with weapons.
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