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Syrian rebels shoot down regime warplane over Idlib

Local | 2019-08-14 18:10:37
Syrian rebels shoot down regime warplane over Idlib
 Rebels shot down a Syrian warplane in the opposition stronghold of Idlib province Wednesday as Russian-backed regime forces closed in on a strategically important town, rebel sources and an activist group said.

A pilot who ejected from the plane was captured, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, which reports on the war using a network of sources. Pro-regime media websites said the cause of the crash was a technical problem.

The militant Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful insurgent group in the area, said its fighters had shot down a Sukhoi 22 jet that had taken off from a Syrian air base in Homs province.

Syrian rebels have shot down government planes on several occasions during the war that spiraled out of the uprising against President Bashar Assad in 2011.

The HTS statement did not say how the plane had been shot down. The Observatory said heavy machine guns had been used.

The jet was downed east of the near deserted Khan Sheikhoun, an HTS-held town that was hit by a sarin gas attack in 2017 and is now being targeted in a Russian-backed government offensive.

Regime forces seized new ground from insurgents near Khan Sheikhoun Wednesday, capturing five villages and advancing to within a few kilometers of the town. A rebel commander told Reuters that the town, in opposition hands since 2014, was in “great danger.”

The capture of the five villages - Tal Aas, Khirbet Morshed, Kfar Ain, Umm Zeitoun and Mantar - puts Syrian troops about 5 kilometers west of Khan Sheikhoun, one of the largest and most populated towns on the southern edge of Idlib province, which is the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive against rebel strongholds in the north of Hama province and the southern districts of Idlib since April 30. The three-month campaign of airstrikes and shelling has killed more than 2,000 people on both sides and displaced some 400,000. In recent days, troops have intensified their offensive, capturing the town of Habeet Sunday.

The aim of the latest government push appears to be to surround several towns and villages in rebel-held Hama, including the towns of Kfar Zeita and Latamneh, as well as to reach Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib.

The regime-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said pro-government fighters took the five villages Wednesday after fierce fighting with Al-Qaeda-linked militants. Troops were continuing to advance toward checkpoints at the western entrance of Khan Sheikhoun, it said.

“The operation aims to expand the regime-controlled area in northern parts of Hama and cut supply lines to rebels,” Yazan Mohammad, a media activist based in Idlib province, told the Associated Press.

Many residents of Khan Sheikhoun and nearby villages were fleeing toward safer areas farther north in Idlib, he added.

The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in northwestern Syria, said in a statement Wednesday that over 40,000 people had fled their homes in areas close to the fighting since early Tuesday. It said many of those who fled were staying on roads or in open-air areas and called on local authorities to open public schools to host the displaced.Sheikh Sami Rahmoun, an HTS commander, released an audio recording late Tuesday acknowledging his fighters had lost territory. “Don’t worry if we lose an area or two,” he claimed. “We will be victorious.”

Syria's war has killed more than 560,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests. 

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