A Syrian war plane was downed by rebels in the opposition stronghold of Idlib province as Russian-backed Syrian government forces closed in on a strategically important town, rebel sources, state news agency, and a war monitor reported on Wednesday.
The jet was shot down near rebel-held town, Khan Sheikhoun, which has recently been targeted in an offensive by the Russian-backed Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The jet was reportedly on a mission to destroy rebel headquarters.
The war plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile fired by insurgents. The pilot’s fate remains unknown, the Syrian state news agency SANA said.
Heavy machine guns were used to shoot down the jet, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor that reports on the war using a network of sources on the ground.
The monitor said the pilot who ejected from the jet was captured by a rebel militant group.
The Sukhoi 22 fighter jet, was targeted by anti-aircraft units of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu (AA) reported, citing Muhammad Rashid from Nasir Army, a faction of the National Liberation Front in Idlib.
The HTS, the most powerful armed rebel group in the region, is the latest incarnation of the group formerly known as the Nusra Front which was the official wing of al-Qaeda in the Syrian conflict until they apparently parted ways in 2016.
The former al-Qaeda affiliate group is designated as a terrorist organisation by the UN Security Council.
Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011 with a variety of anti-government forces opposed to al-Assad forces.
Moscow supports the al-Assad regime, while Ankara has been backing the rebels, notably the HTS which controls a region home to some 3 million residents, including most of Idlib and parts of Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia.
The northwestern Idlib region is part of the last major stronghold of the opposition. Forces of the al-Assad regime has struggled to make any gains in an offensive that began in late April.
The regime, however, managed to take several significant positions, including the town of al-Habeet on Saturday, in the aftermath of the collapse of a brief ceasefire this month.
On Wednesday, the al-Assad forces seized new ground from rebels near Khan Sheikhoun which is in “great danger”, according to a rebel commander who spoke to Reuters.
Last week, the humanitarian adviser to the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Syria said the regime’s forces advanced toward the town and were threatening to encircle the last remaining pocket of rebel-held territory which is home to millions, warning that the situation risked “coming out of control”.
According to the Observatory, at least 450,000 people have been driven from their homes due to the violence, while around 500 civilians have been killed since April when the fighting broke out in the area.
Khan Sheikhoun was hit during a sarin gas attack on April 4, 2017, allegedly by the al-Assad regime which killed dozens of people.
At the time, US President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike against the regime’s airbase from where the gas attack had allegedly been launched.
The UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons conducted an investigation into the gas attack, saying the al-Assad government was responsible for releasing sarin on the town. Damascus denies using such weapons.