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Syrian rebels claim to capture pilot after downing plane

- Associated Press - Monday, August 13, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels circulated dramatic video Monday of what they claimed was the downing of a warplane and armed men later holding the captured pilot who ejected, as the MiG fighter was engulfed by flames.

Syria acknowledged a pilot bailed out of a disabled plane but blamed the crash on a technical malfunction.

The authenticity of the images or the claims could not be independently verified. If the rebels did bring down their first aircraft, that could signal a significant jump in their firepower and give opposition forces their most high-profile military captive.

Wider questions remain even if the rebel reports are confirmed, including whether this could be just a one-time blow against expanding air offensives by the forces of Bashar Assad's regime. Just days ago, protesters across Syria pleaded for the rebels' main backers -- including Turkey and Gulf states — to send anti-aircraft weapons for outgunned fighters.

Mr. Assad's military has significantly stepped up aerial attacks in recent weeks. Strafing from warplanes and close-range missile strikes from helicopter gunships have pushed back rebels in key fronts such as Aleppo, the country's largest city and the scene of fierce attacks to dislodge rebel positions.

The relentless bloodshed — including alleged massacres by pro-regime mobs and retaliation killings by rebels — already has claimed more than 20,000 lives, activists say. The violence will be further examined in a report expected Wednesday by the U.N. Human Rights Council's independent commission probing abuses in Syria.

In another crack in Mr. Assad's diplomatic corps, a Syrian diplomat who worked with the U.N. human rights council in Geneva said he left his post to join the opposition.

A spokesman for the council, Rolando Gomez, identified the Syrian as Danny al-Baaj and described him as a junior member of his country's U.N. mission. Syria is not a member of the 47-nation council, but Mr. al-Baaj worked with it as part of his duties.

The claims of bringing down the warplane and capturing the pilot, meanwhile, are likely to become a key propaganda tool to rally rebel fighters.

Activists released a video they say showed a government Soviet-made MiG warplane in flames, after it was hit by ground fire over Deir el-Zour province, an area near the Iraqi border where the opposition has strongholds. Hours later, another video shown on the pan-Arab network Al-Arabiya purported to show the captured pilot surrounded by armed rebels.

The alleged captive identified himself as Col. Rafik Mohammed Suleiman. He said he was on a mission to attack a rebel-held area but is now urging Mr. Assad's soldiers to defect to the rebels.

Syria's state-run SANA news agency said the pilot ejected from a warplane after a technical failure during a "training mission." It added that a search was under way to find the pilot.

The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the plane was hit as it was conducting air raids on the town of Muhassan, which is close to a military airfield. The group quoted activists in the area as saying the plane was hit with fire from a heavy machine gun used by rebels in the area.

Syria has such anti-aircraft weapons in its arsenal, and it's possible that some could have fallen into rebel hands.

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