Syrian rebel group claims to have hit Mig-23 with anti-aircraft fire over Idlib province before it crashed near Turkey's Hatay province
— Ahrar Al-Sham inter (@ahrar_alsham_en) March 4, 2017
ISTANBUL, Turkey - A Syrian Mig-23 fighter jet crashed Saturday evening on the Turkish side of the border with Syria after rebel group Ahrar al-Sham claimed it had shot it down.
Other media reports cited a technical malfunction as the reason for the crash.
Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, confirmed a Syrian Mg-23 fighter jet had crashed and said that a search and rescue operation was under way.
"A Mig-23 belonging to the Syrian regime has crashed. We are assuming the pilot has ejected. Search and rescue operations are underway," said Yildirim.
The Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham claimed it had shot down the jet with anti-aircraft guns as it flew over Idlib province.
Ahrar al-Sham spokesman Ahmed Karaali told the Anadolu news agency that his group had downed the plane.
”We hit the plane with 23mm anti-aircraft guns while it was conducting a low bombing raid in Idlib’s rural areas," he said.
"The plane developed technical difficulties after we hit it. Then we saw it beginning to crash."
A video posted by the group showed militants firing at the jet as it flew over their positions.
The wreckage was found on the Turkish side of the border, and the cockpit was empty.
The jet’s pilot reportedly ejected as the plane crashed near Turkey’s Hatay province on the Syrian border, Turkish media reports stated.
The plane developed technical difficulties after we hit it. Then we saw it beginning to crash
- Ahrar al-Sham spokesman
The pilot is said to have radioed a malfunction to Turkish air control and ejected, according to local media reports.
The pilot was reported as being alive but it remained unclear whether he had landed on the Turkish or Syrian side of the border.
Hatay's governor, Erdal Ata, said there were reports of a crashed jet in the vicinity of Yaylacik village in the province but they remained uncertain if the plane had crashed on the Turkish or Syrian side of the border.
He said the site had not yet been reached.
”This incident has nothing to do with a border violation. We don’t know if it is because of a technical fault or something else," he said.
”No action was taken against the plane by our side. We don’t know if it crashed for technical reasons or if it was shot down. We think it was a fighter jet."
Villagers in Hatay province reported a loud explosion to the local gendarmerie forces at 6.30pm local time, according to the Dogan News Agency.
Syrian rebel groups were moved out of Syria’s second-largest city Aleppo, where they were entrenched for almost three years, and sent to Idlib province last December in a deal believed to have been hammered out between Damascus, Moscow and Ankara.
If it was a downing, this would represent the third shooting down of military aircraft near Turkey’s border with Syria since the start of the conflict there.
In June 2012, a Turkish F-4 Phantom reconnaissance jet was shot down by the Syrian air force for alleged airspace violation.
In November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M for violating its airspace.
The incident appears to be unrelated to the tensions developing further east in the town of Manbij.
The threat of US-backed Syrian-Kurdish forces clashing with Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army fighters has increased dramatically over the past week as Ankara has set its sights on pushing the Syrian-Kurdish YPG force out of Manbij.
The YPG – comprising a major part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - has been based in Manbij since August 2016, when it wrested the town from Islamic State control with the aid of US aerial and logistics support.
Ankara has said it will not tolerate any YPG presence in Manbij or west of the Euphrates river and will attack the town if required.
Clashes were reported between Turkish-backed FSA and YPG forces last week.
Soon after another agreement between the Manbij Military Council, part of the SDF, and Russia was announced where the defence of areas west of Manbij would be left to Syrian regime forces.
This was construed as a move to deter any Turkish advance.