SARAQIB, Syria: A Russian pilot was killed on Saturday (Feb 3) in fighting with Islamists after his warplane was downed over northwest Syria, Russia's defence ministry and a monitor said.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a powerful jihadist-dominated alliance, said it had shot down the plane on an affiliated media channel but made no mention of the pilot.
"We were able to bring down the Russian warplane with a shoulder-fired missile above Saraqib in Idlib this afternoon," said Mahmoud al-Turkmani, who according to the statement heads HTS's "air defence brigade."
He said the attack was in retaliation for a ferocious bombing campaign by Russian warplanes over Idlib.
HTS, which is dominated by Al-Qaeda's former affiliate, controls Idlib and has sought to fight back a ferocious Russian-backed assault by Syrian government troops.
An AFP correspondent who arrived at the crash site on Saturday saw what appeared to be the charred remains of the plane, including a wing with a red star still visible.
Firefighters arrived to put out flames that had been spewing dark smoke into the wintry Syrian sky.
The Russian defence ministry confirmed the Su-25 aircraft was shot down over Idlib province and said the pilot was killed "in fighting against terrorists."
"A Russian Su-25 aircraft crashed during a flight over the Idlib de-escalation zone. The pilot had enough time to announce he had ejected into the zone," the defence ministry said.
"The pilot was killed in fighting against terrorists," it said, quoted by Russian agencies.
It added that "according to preliminary reports, the plane was shot down by a portable anti-aircraft missile system."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the jet was downed near the town of Saraqib in Idlib and the pilot parachuted to the ground.
He was killed clashing with rebels as they tried to take him hostage, said the Britain-based Observatory.
"There have been dozens of Russian air strikes in the area over the past 24 hours. This plane was also carrying out raids there," said Abdel Rahman.
The Observatory said 20 people, including eight children, were killed on Saturday during a bombardment on Saraqib and surrounding villages.
Syria's uprising broke out in 2011 with protests against Assad's rule but has since morphed into a complex war drawing in global powers.
Moscow began conducting air strikes in Syria in September 2015, and its intervention has swung the nearly seven-year conflict firmly in the favour of its ally in Damascus.
Opposition factions have shot Syrian regime planes in the past, but the downing of Russian aircraft is much rarer.
Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015, leading to the worst crisis in ties between the two countries since the end of the Cold War
And in August 2016, a Russian military helicopter was shot down over Syria and all five people on board were killed.
DEADLY FIRE ON TURKISH TANK
Russia has been spearheading a more than year-long diplomatic push to try to freeze fighting in coordination with fellow regime ally Iran and rebel backer Turkey.
Ankara has supported an array of rebel groups to fight Syria's government, the Islamic State jihadist group, and Kurdish militia that it has blacklisted as "terrorists."
On Jan 20, Turkey and allied rebel fighters began an offensive on the Syrian enclave of Afrin, held by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
Seven Turkish soldiers were killed on Saturday as part of the assault, including five who died in a single attack on a tank, the Turkish army said.
The losses mark the highest toll in a single day for the Turkish army in operation "Olive Branch."
The Observatory has also counted 104 allied rebels and 102 YPG fighters killed since the offensive began, as well as 68 civilians.
Ankara has denied targeting civilians as part of its Afrin offensive.
Mourners on Saturday gathered in Afrin to commemorate victims of the operation, including female fighter Barin Kobani whose badly mutilated body appeared in a shocking video earlier this week.
The footage sparked accusations by her family and Kurdish officials that she was "defiled" by Turkish-backed rebels.
The opposition's government-in-exile said on Saturday it had opened an investigation into the matter.
Thousands of people protested on Saturday in France against operation "Olive Branch," gathering in Strasbourg and Paris to condemn the assault.
They held posters that read "Defend Afrin" and "Erdogan assassin," in reference to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.