Al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria downed a Russian fighter jet on Saturday afternoon and killed its pilot after he ejected from the plane and landed on the ground in the embattled northwestern province of Idlib. The pilot resisted being captured and fired at the militants who then shot and killed him, according to one of the militants and Syrian monitors.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the downing of the Su-25 warplane and said "the pilot died in a fight with terrorists." A report on the ministry’s Zvezda TV said preliminary information indicated the plane was shot by a portable ground-to-air missile in an area under control of Al-Qaida’s branch in Syria.
Rebel forces earlier claimed that they captured the pilot.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the warplane was downed near the rebel-held town of Saraqeb, which Syrian troops have been trying to reach under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
According to reports, the plane took off from Russia's Hemeimeem air base in northern Syria and attacked near Idlib before being hit by a ground-to-air missile. The Russians said that some 30 rebels died in an attack in the area where the plane was downed.
A rebel source said the Sukhoi plane was shot down over Khan al-Subl, a town near Saraqeb, close to a major highway that has come under fierce air attack and attempts to advance on the ground by the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias.
The Syrian opposition had shown on social media what they said was the wreckage of the plane and the body of the pilot surrounded by rebels.
They said the downed warplane was one of the planes used to target civilian convoys fleeing along a major Syrian highway from villages that the army and foreign militias had overrun.
Syria's civil war, which is now entering its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes.
A Russian plane was blamed for the death of seven civilians and scores of injuries after cars were targeted on the highway, according to a witness and two rebel sources.
Syrian soldiers and Iranian-backed militiamen were now around 12 kilometers from Saraqeb, advancing toward the Damascus-Aleppo highway under cover of heavy Russian airstrikes, two opposition sources said.
At least five civilians were killed in Saraqeb city on Saturday, in strikes that residents said were carried out by Russian planes.
Syrians in rebel-held areas say they can distinguish between Russian warplanes and those of the Syrian air force, because the Russian planes fly at higher altitudes.