Syrian rebels shot down a Russian military plane and killed the pilot, Russia’s Defense Ministry said, highlighting the risks of Russia’s military operations in Syria.
The Sukhoi Su-25 attack plane was downed by a local rebel faction as it was carrying out airstrikes on the town of Saraqib in northwest Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, antigovernment activists and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The warplane was shot using an antiaircraft rocket, the Observatory said.
“The pilot managed to tell the tower he ejected in an area held by Jabhat al-Nusra militants. The pilot died in a fight with the terrorists,” Interfax news agency reported the Russian Defense Ministry as saying.
The pilot, who ejected from the plane, was killed in an exchange of fire with rebel fighters once he parachuted to the ground, the Observatory said.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) February 3, 2018
The ministry later said a retaliatory strike with precision-guided missiles killed 30 militants in the area of Idlib province where the plane was downed.
Some pro-Kremlin lawmakers suggested the U.S. may be involved, citing the presence of U.S. military instructors in the area or potential provision of weapons to the rebels.
“The United States has never provided Manpad missiles to any group in Syria, and we are deeply concerned that such weapons are being used,” a State Department spokeswoman said, referring to man-portable antiaircraft missile systems.
“We are concerned by reports of cruise missile and airstrikes in Syria today and are monitoring the situation closely,” a State Department official said. “Once again, we urge all parties to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. The United States is not involved in any way with respect to hostilities in northwest Syria.”
Russian and regime warplanes have targeted Saraqib and other areas in Idlib province in an intense air offensive and battles for weeks as part of an attempt to capture parts of the opposition’s last stronghold.