Syrian rebels destroy helicopter in Hama offensive-monitor, rebels

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels destroyed a helicopter with a TOW missile on Friday, rebels and a monitor said, in Hama province where they have launched a major assault in an area of strategic importance to President Bashar al-Assad.

Rebel group Jaish al-Azza, part of the Free Syrian Army alliance, said in a statement it had “destroyed a Russian helicopter” near the village of Rahbat al-Khattab, about 5 km (3 miles) northwest of the outskirts of government-controlled Hama city.

Jaish al-Azza published a video online showing a helicopter bursting into flames and thick black smoke shortly after landing. It also showed rebels launching a TOW missile.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s five-year-old conflict, said a helicopter, believed to be Russian, was hit by a rocket as it landed. It said the fate of the crew was not known.

Russian defense officials could not immediately be contacted for comment.

Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in September last year, to support Assad after insurgents took large swathes of territory in the summer.

Since launching the offensive in the northern Hama countryside early this week, rebels have captured a number of towns and villages. The targeted area is populated by Christians and Alawites loyal to the government and is close to the mountain heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy