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Syrian rebels shoot down Russian plane, kill pilot: Monitor

HTS, dominated by al-Qaeda's former affiliate in Syria, says it shot down plane but makes no mention of pilot
Russian air power is backing Syrian government offensive in Idlib (Reuters)

Syrian rebels shot down a Russian plane over Syria's northwest Idlib province on Saturday, a monitor said, and the pilot was then killed in fighting on the ground.  

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights could not confirm which faction shot down the plane, but the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls large areas of Idlib, claimed it had shot it down. 

The pilot, who ejected from the plane, "was killed as he fought Islamist rebels who had shot down his plane and were taking him captive," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

HTS said on an affiliated media channel it had shot down the plane but made no mention of the pilot. 

"We were able to bring down the Russian warplane with a shoulder-fired missile above Saraqib in Idlib this afternoon," said Mahmoud al-Turkmani, who, according to the statement, heads HTS's "air defence brigade".

He said the attack was in retaliation for a ferocious bombing campaign by Russian warplanes over Idlib.

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HTS, which is dominated by al-Qaeda's former affiliate in Syria, controls Idlib and has fought back against a Russian-backed assault by Syrian government troops.

The TASS news agency cited Russia's defence ministry later on Saturday as saying a strike from an undisclosed high-precision weapon killed more than 30 militants in the area where the plane was downed.

Syrian troops launched the offensive on Idlib in late December, with backing by Russian warplanes.

On Friday, Syrian government warplanes launched multiple air strikes on rebel-held areas across Syria in a bid to take control from opposition forces. 

Seven civilians were killed in the village of Telahdiya, inside the West Aleppo countryside, after Syrian government air strikes targeted a convoy of displaced refugees attempting to flee the violence. 

"There have been dozens of Russian air strikes in the area over the past 24 hours. This plane was also carrying out raids there," said Abdel Rahman.

Opposition factions have shot Syrian government planes in the past, but the downing of Russian warplanes is much rarer.

In August 2016, a Russian military helicopter was shot down over Syria and all five people on board were killed.

Moscow began conducting air strikes in Syria in September 2015.

Two months later, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, leading to the worst crisis in ties between the two countries since the end of the Cold War.