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World & Nation

Syrian rebels have long wanted anti-aircraft missiles. Their wish may have been granted

Syrian civil war

The wreckage of a government warplane burns after it was shot down by rebels over the northern Syrian town of Al Eis.

(Omar Haj Kadour / AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian rebels operating in the country’s northern region shot down a government warplane Tuesday, suggesting that they have been supplied with anti-aircraft weapons.

Government and rebel sources confirmed the strike, and social media accounts associated with the hard-line Islamist group Ahrar al Sham linked to a video depicting a flaming aircraft hurtling toward the orchards of Al Eis village and jubilant onlookers cheering and taking pictures of the plane’s wreckage.

Other videos on social media showed a man who appeared to be one of the plane’s pilots — identified as Col. Khaled Said by the pro-opposition broadcaster Orient Net — surrounded by rebels grabbing and insulting him.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day’s top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

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A pro-opposition activist, Majed Abdul Nour, said that the pilot was taken by militants affiliated with Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Al Nusra Front.

Another pro-opposition journalist, Moussa Omar, tweeted a picture of what he said was the bloodied corpse of the other pilot.

Earlier in the war, rebel groups managed to obtain some shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from Syrian Army depots and from the government of Qatar. They have long argued that they need a reliable supply of the missiles, known as man-portable air-defense systems.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and other backers have rejected their pleas amid concern that the missiles could fall into the hands of Islamist militants and be used against Western targets.

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The rebels’ need intensified after last September, when Russian war planes entered the conflict and became instrumental in helping pro-government forces take back territory. Russia recently announced it was scaling back its air missions there.

The Russian state news agency Tass reported that the downed plane was a Sukhoi 22 jet from the Syrian Air Force.

It was not immediately clear how the plane was shot down.

The Syrian state news agency SANA reported that “a warplane was struck by a surface-to-air missile launched by the terrorist organizations while it was on a reconnaissance mission.”

That was consistent with social media images posted by opposition activists showing rebels carrying what military experts identified as an SA-7 Strela anti-aircraft missile.

But Abdul Nour and other opposition activists said the plane had been shot down by “heavy machine guns.”

“All eye-witnesses in the area said it was shot down by machine gun, and they were cheering the gunner who brought it down,” he said.

Syrian warplanes, lacking the “smart” bombs of their Russian counterparts, are often forced to fly at lower altitudes for their sorties, putting them at risk from ground fire.

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Al Eis has been the site of violent clashes since last week, when rebel groups working together wrested control of the strategic village from pro-government troops.

The attack comes at a delicate time in the Syrian civil war, which began six years ago and has killed an estimated 250,000 people and turned a third of the Syrian population into refugees.

See the most-read stories this hour >>

Recent fighting has frayed a fragile cease-fire that took effect in February, as the government and opposition groups prepare to meet at the end of the week in Geneva for a second round of talks aimed at ending the crisis.

Among the most contentious issues is the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The opposition and its foreign backers insist he can have no role in a future Syria.

But in a news conference last month, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said opposition groups should not bother showing up to peace talks if that is their bottom line.

“They must abandon these delusions,” he said.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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