BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said on Wednesday they had shot down a fighter jet in northern Syria as part of their campaign to weaken the army’s overwhelming air power.
President Bashar al-Assad, who is struggling to put down a 17-month-old uprising against his rule, has been relying increasingly on aircraft to attack the rebels, who are comparatively lightly armed with machineguns and rockets.
The rebels stepped up their attacks on air bases last week.
Opposition fighters in northern Idlib province said they shot down the aircraft on Tuesday with heavy machinegun fire as it was taking off from the Abu Thuhur air base.
“They brought it down as it was taking off from the airport using 14.5 millimeter anti-aircraft machineguns,” said Abu Majad, a spokesman from the rebel Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of Syria) brigade.
“The airport has been surrounded by the Ahrar al-Sham brigade and the Syrian Martyrs Brigade,” but it was not clear if fighting was in progress, he said. “Due to communication difficulties I am not sure what the situation is at the moment.”
It was impossible to verify the rebel statements as foreign media access to Syria is restricted. This was the second fighter aircraft the rebels say they have shot down, the last one being in eastern Deir al-Zor province.
State news channels said the aircraft that came down in Deir al-Zor crashed because of technical problems. They have not yet reacted to the rebel claim to have shot down a jet in Idlib.
Video posted by the Syria Martyrs Brigade showed fighters posing near burning pieces of a camouflage-painted aircraft and examining the bloodied corpse of what appeared to be the pilot, tangled in a parachute.
Rebels say they have “liberated” many parts of northern Syria, but their victories mean little as long as fighter jets and helicopters can bomb and strafe opposition-held areas. The government is increasingly using airpower near the capital Damascus.
Activists say that air strikes often miss their targets and hit civilians, sometimes killing dozens in a single strike.
Rebels have reported the downing of several helicopters in the past month, including one last week that was attacking a rebel-held area in the capital Damascus. State television said the aircraft had crashed but gave no further details.
Reporting by Erika Solomon; editing by Tim Pearce