BEIRUT - Al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria downed a Russian fighter jet on Saturday and killed its pilot after he ejected from the plane and landed on the ground in the embattled northwestern province of Idlib. The pilot resisted being captured and fired at the militants who then shot and killed him, according to one of the militants and Syrian monitors.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the downing of the Su-25 and said the pilot was killed in fighting with "terrorists." A report on the ministry's Zvezda TV said preliminary information indicated the plane was shot by a portable ground-to-air missile in an area under control of al-Qaida's branch in Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the plane was downed on Saturday afternoon near the rebel-held town of Sarqeb, which Syrian troops have been trying to take under the cover of Russian airstrikes.
Russia is a key ally of President Bashar Assad, and has been waging a military campaign on behalf of his forces since 2015. Since then, Syrian troops have captured wide parts of the country and in recent weeks have been making advances in Idlib. The province is also a base for al-Qaida's branch in Syria and other Islamic groups.
A Syrian militant in the area told The Associated Press that the Russian pilot was shot and killed when he resisted capture. The pilot opened fire from his pistol as the militants were trying to seize him, said the militant, who refused to be identified by his real name because was not authorized to speak to the media.
A video circulating on social media shows a lifeless body of a man, his face stained with blood, as bearded gunmen stand around him. One of the armed men shouts: “He is Russian.” The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed but it corresponded to events reported by the AP.
Earlier in the day, the Observatory and the media arm of al-Qaida-linked militants reported intense airstrikes in Idlib. The Observatory reported more than 35 airstrikes on Saraqeb since late Friday, adding that many of its residents are fleeing.
The Ibaa News Agency of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, said Russian and Syrian warplanes and helicopter gunships have been pounding Saraqeb and the village of Tel Mardeekh in Idlib since the early hours of Saturday.
Syria's state news agency, SANA, said Syrian troops captured the village of Maasaran as well as the Tel Tokan hill, cutting links between Saraqeb and the rebel stronghold of Maarest al-Numan to the south.
Syrian government forces and their allies launched a push into Idlib six weeks ago, inching closer to a key highway that connects Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
The U.N. says more than 270,000 people have been displaced in Idlib because of the government onslaught since December 15.
Meanwhile, fighting raged on Saturday between Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters, and a Syrian Kurdish militia in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin.
The Turkish military said two of its soldiers were killed in Syria and a third was killed on the Turkish side of the border in an attack by Syrian Kurdish militiamen.
The military said Saturday's deaths were related to Turkey's operation against Syrian Kurdish-held Afrin, codenamed Olive Branch. One of the soldiers was killed when a Turkish tank was hit in Afrin.
A total of eight Turkish soldiers and at least 24 allied Syrian opposition fighters have died so far in Ankara's offensive, which started on Jan. 20.
The Turkish operation aims to clear Afrin of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People's Protection Units or YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdish insurgency within its borders.
Turkish presidential spokesman said Turkey will not tolerate the presence of a Syrian Kurdish militia “anywhere” along its southern border, hinting that Ankara might expand its military operation underway in the Syrian enclave of Afrin eastward.
The spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said Saturday that Turkey's first demand is to see the YPG move east of the Euphrates River and leave the town of Manbij, where American troops backing the Syrian Kurdish fighters are stationed.
Kalin called on the United States to “disengage” from the YPG and said Turkey will continue communications with “our American allies to avoid any confrontation.”
Turkey shares a 911-kilometer border with Syria. The YPG controls much of the territory along the border and an uninterrupted strip from Manbij to the Iraqi border.