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IS downs warplane over Syria, claims capture of Jordan pilot

Islamic State militants say they shot down the coalition warplane with a heat-seeking missile
A still image released by the Islamic State group's branch in Raqa of the alleged Jordanian pilot on 24 December (AFP)

The Islamic State group captured a Jordanian pilot on Wednesday after his warplane from the US-led coalition was reportedly shot down while on a mission against the militants over northern Syria.

A senior Jordanian military official confirmed the pilot was seized, saying his plane went down in Syria's Raqa region, a militant stronghold, early on Wednesday.

"The pilot was taken hostage by the IS terrorist organisation," official news agency Petra quoted the official as saying.

Jordan did not say why the plane went down, but both the militants and a monitoring group said it was shot with an anti-aircraft missile.

It was the first coalition warplane lost since air strikes on IS began in Syria in September.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said its sources confirmed IS had captured the pilot "after shooting his plane down with an anti-aircraft missile near Raqa city." 

Coalition warplanes have carried out regular strikes around Raqa, which IS has used as the headquarters for its self-declared "caliphate" after seizing control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The IS branch in Raqa published photographs on its websites purporting to show its fighters holding the captured pilot.

One showed the pilot, wearing only a white shirt, being carried from a body of water by four men. Another showed him on land, surrounded by about a dozen armed men.

A photograph was also released of the pilot's military identification card, showing his name as Muaz al-Kasasbeh, his birth date as May 29, 1988, and his rank of first lieutenant. According to his Facebook page, al-Kassasbeh studied at King Hussein Air College and recently married in July.

The militants claimed to have shot down the warplane with a heat-seeking missile.

Images distributed by IS supporters appeared to show the remains of an F-16 fighter jet.

Experts said the missile used may have been taken from Syrian rebels or among weapons captured from Syrian and Iraqi troops.

Eliot Higgins, who posts detailed analyses of weapons in Syria and other conflicts on his blog, said IS is known to have several kinds of anti-aircraft weapons including Chinese-made and Soviet-era weaponry.

Observers say the militant group considers the capture of an alleged coalition war plane, a victory on their part.

“This would be first time for IS to make such a win; reports that IS actually downed a warplane is a massive propaganda hit for them,” said Hassan Hassan, analyst at the Delma Institute.

Photos have been circulated on social media showing parts of the warplane displayed on the streets of Raqa.

Deadly Iraq suicide blast                                                                                              

The pilot's father Youssef was quoted by Jordanian news website Saraya as saying the family had been informed by the air force of his capture.

He said the military promised it was "working to save his life" and that Jordan's ruler, King Abdullah II, was following events.

"He got married only five months ago. I wish for his safe return to his wife and family," he added. 

Analysts said these reports could have wider repercussions for the Kingdom.

“These [reports] can [bolster] IS’s ideology and may polarise the Jihadi scene in Jordan especially between supporters of Nusra and supporters of IS,” said Hassan.

“IS has always said that Muslims who help the Americans are worse than the Americans and are more of a priority for them than the Americans themselves,” Hassan told MEE. 

Hassan expects that the pilot will be either beheaded or used as a bargaining chip.

“Muaz will most likely be beheaded, but IS may also use him to pressure Jordan to back down and stop their support for the international coalition,” said Hassan.

Jordan is among a number of countries that have joined the US-led alliance carrying out air strikes against IS.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain are taking part in the air strikes in Syria alongside the United States.

The militant group has committed widespread atrocities in areas under its control, including mass executions and public beheadings.

In Iraq a suicide bomber on Wednesday attacked Sunni fighters opposed to IS as they gathered to receive salaries south of Baghdad, killing at least 26 people, officials said.

The coalition first launched strikes against IS in August in Iraq, where the jihadists overran the country's Sunni heartland weeks earlier in a major offensive.

Iraqi security forces, backed by the strikes, have launched a counter-offensive to retake some areas but have been facing stiff resistance from the entrenched IS militants.

Some local Sunni militia have joined the fight against IS and Wednesday's attack near a military base in the Madain area targeted Sunni fighters known as Sahwa.

The attack also wounded at least 56 people, officials said. It was unclear how many of the victims were Sahwa fighters. 

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but suicide bombings are a tactic almost exclusively employed by militant extremists in Iraq, including IS.

The Sahwa, or "Awakening" in Arabic, date back to the height of the US-led war in Iraq, when Sunni tribesmen joined forces with the Americans to battle insurgents including IS's predecessor organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq.

The Sahwa were key to sharply reducing violence, but when Iraq's government took over responsibility for their salaries they were sometimes paid late or not at all.