This photo provided by the Ibaa News Agency, the media arm of al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, shows part of a Russian plane that was shot down by rebel fighters over northwest Idlib province in Syria, Feb 3, 2018. (IBAA NEWS AGENCY VIA AP)
AMMAN/MOSCOW – Russian air strikes killed at least “30 militants” in northwest Syria, where Syrian rebels shot down a Russian fighter jet, Russia's Defense Ministry said in a statement Saturday.
A series of high-precision weapon strikes has been delivered in the area controlled by the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist group, which brought down the Russian SU-25 jet by using a portable anti-aircraft missile system in the northern Idlib province, said the statement.
Tharir al-Sham, a jihadist group spearheaded by the former Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for shooting down the plane on social media
After shooting down the warplane, the rebels killed its pilot on the ground after he ejected from the plane.
"According to radio intercepts, more than 30 Jabhat al-Nusra militants were killed," said the Russian defense ministry statement.
The ministry confirmed the pilot, who survived the jet crash, was later killed “in a ground fight with the terrorists.”
In May 2017, the guarantors of the Syrian ceasefire – Russia, Iran and Turkey – agreed to set up the Syrian de-escalation zones in Syria, which includes Idlib province.
The Russian plane was shot down over the town of Khan al-Subl near the city of Saraqeb, close to a major highway where the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias are trying to advance, a rebel source said.
Although the Russian pilot escaped the crash, he was killed by rebels who had tried to capture him, the source said.
Tharir al-Sham, a jihadist group spearheaded by the former Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for shooting down the plane on social media, saying one of its fighters had scored a direct hit with a shoulder launched anti-aircraft missile.
"This work is the least we can do to revenge our people. Let the criminal invaders know that our skies are not a picnic and they will not pass through without paying a price, God willing," senior commander Mahmoud Turkomani said in a statement released by the group.
The area has seen heavy air strikes and fighting on the ground between Syria's government forces backed by Russia and Iran, and rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrians opposed to Assad see Russia as an invading force they blame for the deaths of thousands of civilians since Moscow joined the war on the side of the government in 2015.
The US State Department said it had seen reports about the incident and allegations that the United States provided missiles to groups in Syria.
"The United States has never provided MANPAD missiles to any group in Syria, and we are deeply concerned that such weapons are being used," said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
TASS news agency quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying Moscow retaliated with a strike from an undisclosed high-precision weapon that killed more than 30 militants in an area of Idlib province where the plane was downed.
The Syrian opposition released footage on social media that purported to show the wreckage of the plane and the body of the pilot surrounded by fighters.
Rebels said the downed warplane had taken part in strikes that targeted civilian convoys fleeing along a major Syrian highway from villages that the army and foreign militias had overrun.
Syria's civil war, which is now entering its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes.
A Russian plane was blamed for the death of seven civilians and scores of injuries after cars were targeted on the highway, according to a witness and two rebels sources.
Syrian soldiers and Iranian-backed militiamen were now around twelve kilometers from Saraqeb, advancing toward the Damascus-Aleppo highway under cover of heavy Russian air strikes, two opposition sources said.
At least five civilians were killed in Saraqeb city on Saturday, which residents blamed on Russian planes.
Syrians in rebel-held areas say they can distinguish between Russian warplanes and those of the Syrian air force, because the Russian planes fly at higher altitude.
Residents say thousands of people have been forced by air strikes to flee the area, moving further north to the safety of makeshift camps on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.
Russia's Defense Ministry regularly says it targets only hardline Islamist militants in Syria.