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Islamic State Fighters Capture Jordanian Pilot After Downing Coalition Warplane in Syria

The family of Flight Lieutenant Moaz Youssef al-Kasasbeh have appealed to IS leaders for his release after it published images showing the pilot and the downed jet in its stronghold of Raqqa.
December 24, 2014, 1:05pm
Image via Raqqa Media Center/Twitter

Islamic State fighters have captured a Jordanian pilot after shooting down a US-led coalition warplane over its stronghold in Raqqa, northern Syria.

Jordan confirmed the capture after the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that IS members took a pilot prisoner after shooting down his plane with an anti-aircraft missile.

It is the first coalition warplane shot down since the air strikes on Islamic State began in September.

"During a mission Wednesday morning conducted by several Royal Jordanian Air Force planes against hideouts of the IS terrorist organisation in the Raqqa region, one of the planes went down and the pilot was taken hostage," a Jordanian army statement carried by the state news agency, Petra, said.

"Jordan holds the group and its supporters responsible for the safety of the pilot and his life."

The pro-IS Raqqa Media Center posted photos on Facebook purporting to show the captured pilot, naming him as Moaz Youssef al-Kasasbeh and identifying him as a Royal Jordanian Air Force flight lieutenant. The Jordanian army has not acknowledged his identity but Petra carried a picture of al-Kasasbeh above its report and his family confirmed the capture in interviews with Jordanian media.

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The pilot's father, Youssef al-Kasasbeh, confirmed the capture of the 26-year-old, who got married in July, in an interview with the Jordanian newspaper, Saraya.

Youssef al-Kasasbeh said the Royal Jordanian Air Force had informed another of his sons of the incident.

He issued a direct appeal to the leaders of IS: "May Allah plant mercy in your hearts and may you release my son."

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The images posted by Raqqa Media Center show a man wearing just a white shirt being carried out of a body of water by militants. Pictures of a military ID and a man in military uniform were also published.

Further images apparently show the downed jet. In one, a man holds debris from the crash, and in another a cockpit is visible.

Raqqa province borders Turkey and is almost entirely under control of Islamic State fighters and is a major stronghold for the group. The de facto capital of the group's self-declared caliphate, its entire infrastructure is overseen by IS, which has also imposed hardline Islamist law on the previously relatively liberal city.

The group's armoury has been bolstered by weapons seized in Iraq after the group captured a string of government military bases over the summer, including an airbase. Images released in October purportedly show a fighter firing a Chinese-made surface-to-air missile.

"We have confirmed reports that IS members took a (non-Syrian) Arab pilot prisoner after shooting his plane down with an anti-aircraft missile near Raqqa city," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

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Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have all engaged in or supported strikes in Syria. Syrian government planes also bomb Raqqa and the surrounding province.

An air strike on Tuesday killed more than 20 people in the area, according to the Syrian Observatory.

The US Central Command issued a statement Wednesday denying the Islamic State's claims that the plane was shot down, saying it crashed instead.

"Evidence clearly indicates that ISIL did not down the aircraft as the terrorist organization is claiming," said a statement attributed to Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees all coalition military operations in Iraq and Syria. "The Jordanians are highly-respected and valued partners and their pilots and crews have performed exceptionally well over the course of this campaign,"  We strongly condemn the actions of ISIL which has taken captive the downed pilot. We will support efforts to ensure his safe recovery, and will not tolerate ISIL's attempts to misrepresent or exploit this unfortunate aircraft crash for their own purposes."

Images circulating on social media purportedly showed the wreckage being paraded around the streets of Raqqa.

WOW! The — Rami (@RamiAlLolah)December 24, 2014

Another — Rami (@RamiAlLolah)December 24, 2014

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant