Fighters from al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra, shot down a Syrian warplane and captured its pilot on Tuesday in an area south of Aleppo where insurgents are battling the Syrian army and allied militias, a monitoring group said.
Syria's military confirmed that a plane it said was on a reconnaissance mission had been shot down — by a surface-to-air missile, it said. The pilot had bailed out and efforts were underway to rescue him, it said.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said al-Nusra fighters captured the pilot and took him to one of their headquarters in the area. There was no immediate rebel comment on the use of an anti-aircraft missile.
The Observatory said a plume of smoke was seen as the plane caught fire before it fell in the Talat al-Iss area, where al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels have come under heavy bombardment by Syrian and Russian planes since they captured the area this week.
Videos on social media also showed footage of an aircraft and pictures of the wreckage of a burnt plane surrounded by rebels.
An anti-Assad media outlet posted another video on it Facebook purporting to show the bloodied pilot on the ground, surrounded by people, many of who are saying "don't shoot him."
Aleppo News reported that the plane was a Sukhoi Su-22.
The Syrian air force operates several Su-22 jets, which are specialized in ground-attack operations and can carry a large amount of bombs and missiles; it has often employed them against the Islamic State. According to Oryx Blog, a website that follows closely the armaments used in the Syrian war, the Syrian regime received last year 10 additional Su-22s from its ally Iran, which in turn had seized them from Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.
Aerial supremacy has been a major advantage for the regime against insurgents seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Foreign-backed rebels have long demanded anti-aircraft weapons to offset the impact of devastating aerial raids by Syrian forces and, since September, also by Russian planes. But their backers have been wary of delivering weapons that could fall into the hands of hardline groups.
Last month, Syrian rebels denied a Russian Defence Ministry report that an anti-aircraft missile had been used to shoot down a Syrian warplane in Hama province. Officials in three rebel groups contacted by Reuters reiterated previous statements that that plane had been shot down with anti-aircraft guns.
A fragile "cessation of hostilities" truce has held in Syria for over a month as the various parties try to negotiate an end to the five-year-old war.
But the truce excludes Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and air and land attacks by Syrian and allied forces continue in parts of Syria where the government says the groups are present.