- Associated Press - Thursday, August 30, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian activists said rebels shot down a government warplane over the northern province of Idlib on Thursday, the second time in a week that opposition fighters claimed to have brought down an aircraft in the escalating civil war.

Two activist groups, The Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the plane was seen crashing near the Abu Zuhour air base. Idlib-based activist Alaa al-Din said rebels shot it down with heavy machine guns.

A video broadcast on the pan-Arab satellite station Al-Arabiya shows what appears to be a person parachuting and rebels cheering and claiming he was the pilot. The video’s authenticity could not be verified.

The government had no immediate comment, and the report couldn’t be independently confirmed. But a brief video clip posted by an Idlib-based rebel group showed the body of a man in an olive-green pilot overall with an apparent head wound. A short distance away lay what appeared to be a white parachute.

The authenticity of the video, dated Aug. 30, could not be independently verified.

Over the past month, President Bashar Assad’s regime has been relying much more heavily on air power, escalating the fight with rebels as its ground forces have been stretched thin fighting on many fronts including Syria’s two largest cities — Damascus and Aleppo. The military has conducted air raids on the northern regions of Idlib and Aleppo near Turkey as well as the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

The increased use of air power is likely a factor in the high daily death tolls, which activists say have been averaging 100-250 lately.

This was the third time this month the rebels claimed to have brought down a government aircraft.

Earlier this week, the opposition fighters said they shot down a helicopter in the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar while the government confirmed a chopper crashed in nearby area of al-Qaboun. On Aug. 13, rebels claimed to have shot down a regime MiG-23 warplane and captured the pilot in Deir el-Zour. Syria says the pilot ejected after a technical malfunction in the fighter jet.

If the rebel claims are confirmed, it would be another blow to Assad’s regime, which has been struggling to put down rebel challenges around the country even though its firepower is far superior to the opposition’s.

Rebels appear to be targeting air bases with increasing frequency.

Earlier in the day, the Observatory reported explosions inside the Abu Zuhour air base in Idlib, near where the plane was reported to have been shot down. It added that rebels have captured parts of the compound.

On Wednesday, state news agency SANA reported that government forces repulsed a major rebel attack on a helicopter military base of Taftanaz, also in Idlib province.

Idlib, which borders Turkey, has been one of the major rebel strongholds since last year. Although government troops control the provincial capital, which carries the same name as the province, rebels move freely in towns and villages in the district.

In Iran, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi described the Syrian regime as “oppressive” and called for it to transfer power to a democratic system. He was speaking at the opening of a summit of the 120-member Nonaligned Movement in Tehran.

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