BEIRUT — Syrian rebels claimed Monday that they had shot down a government fighter jet and captured its pilot, and videos posted on an exiled opposition website purported to show the Russian-made MIG-23 struck by machine-gun fire and engulfed in flames.
The Syrian Arab News Agency, however, claimed the warplane crashed due to "technical problems" during a training mission and that a government search operation was underway to locate and rescue the pilot.
The London-based rebel group that posted two videos on YouTube, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, identified the pilot as Col. Mohammed Suleiman. One of the video clips showed a grizzled man of about 50 in a sweat-stained blue shirt surrounded by armed rebels said to be holding him after he was captured in Mohsen, in eastern Dair Alzour province.
If the rebels' claims are true, the downing of the MIG would represent a dramatic turn in the 17-month-old rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. The embattled regime has used its air power against rebels as fighting has intensified around the key government strongholds of Aleppo and Damascus, and the small arms and limited rocket launchers in the rebels' possession previously had not proved a deterrent against aircraft.
A successful ground-to-air strike against a government warplane would also suggest that the rebels have acquired more sophisticated weaponry, likely from Persian Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar that oppose Assad and have vowed to assist the rebels in ousting the autocrat and his minority Shiite Muslim-aligned Alawite regime.
In the first video posted by the rebels, machine-gun fire can be heard as the MIG soars overhead, then shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" [God is great] as the jet is apparently struck, bursts into flames and plummets.
The video reportedly was shot by an activist group called Revolutionary Youth on the Euphrates Land. The group claimed on its Facebook page that the plane was shot with a 14.5-millimeter machine gun by rebels from the Grandsons of Mohammed Brigade.
"Syrian rebel morale is high, but now it is an air battle. If that wasn't the case, we would have won long ago," said Massoud Akko, a Kurdish activist who served in a government air defense unit a few years ago.
Another rebel fighter with the Al Ghab Brigade in Hama, who identified himself only by the nickname Abu Ali, said the opposition forces recently raided government ammunition depots and acquired some antiaircraft missiles, "but it is still not enough. The situation has improved but we are fighting a whole army," he told The Times in an interview via Skype.
The pan-Arab news agency Al Arabiya posted the video of the exploding jet on its website, as well as a report that the captured pilot said he was being treated well in rebel custody and that he appealed to other Assad loyalists to abandon the regime.
Meanwhile, the Al Jazeera news agency reported from an area of intense fighting near Aleppo, Syria's largest and most economically significant city, that rebels were trying to block the road to the coastal Latakia area.
"Over the past two weeks, the army has been using the highway to deploy tanks and armored vehicles from Tartus on the coast to Aleppo," said Al Jazeera correspondent Khadija Magardie, in what the news agency stated was an exclusive report. "If the route is blocked, it would be a major blow to the government force's supply lines."
Rebel groups contend that more than 20,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have been killed in the uprising against Assad, although the latest U.N. reports on casualties have put the number of dead at 17,000.
— Rima Marrouch in Beirut and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Video: This amateur video purports to show the downing of a Syrian government warplane by a rebel machine-gun unit. The veracity of those claims could not be independently verified. Credit: Reuters