Russian air raids in Syria intensify after rebels down fighter plane

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The scene shows, what according to Syrian rebels were fires caused by Russian military plane shot down by rebel forces near Idlib, Syria, reportedly on February 3, 2018 in this still image obtained from social media via REUTERS

Russia’s air raids in rebel-controlled areas in Northern Syria have intensified Sunday night, one day after Syrian rebels shot down a Russian military plane and killed its pilot.

The air raids targeted towns of Kafr Nubl and Maasran, along with the cities of Saraqeb, Maarat al Numan, and Idlib. The exact number of deaths and injuries have not been assessed in the areas, as rescue workers continue to dig through the rubble of collapsed structures.

In Maarat al Numan, a hospital was hit in the air raids, while a residential building was destroyed in Kafr Nubl. In Idlib, the provincial capital, a five-storey building was levelled, according to witnesses.

The intensified air attacks come after Syrian rebels claimed shooting down a Russian Su-25 jet over the rebel-held province. The pilot of the aircraft was able to eject from the plane before it went down, but he eventually died after exchanging gunfire with the rebels.

“The pilot had enough time to announce he had ejected into the zone, under the control of al-Nusra Front fighters,” said the Russian defense ministry. “The pilot was killed in fighting against terrorists.”

The al-Nusra Front fighters are a jihadist group that has been linked to al-Qaeda. The group later circulated a photograph showing a bloodied corpse wearing a white uniform.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist alliance, published a statement saying it has shot down the Russian plane. “We were able to bring down the Russian warplane with a shoulder-fired missile above Saraqib in Idlib this afternoon,” said Mahmoud al-Turkmani, the head of HTS’s air defense brigade.

Previously, the Syrian rebels have repeatedly pleaded with its international backers to provide them with “man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS).” The United States denied being involved in arming the Syrian rebels with the equipment, saying it was not U.S. equipment that was used in shooting down the Russian plane.

“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.