BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels circulated dramatic video Monday of what they claimed was the downing of a warplane and armed men later holding the captured pilot who ejected as the MiG fighter was engulfed by flames. Syria acknowledged a pilot bailed out of a disabled plane but blamed the crash on a technical malfunction.
The authenticity of the images or the claims could not be independently verified. If the rebels did bring down their first aircraft, that could signal a significant jump in their firepower and give opposition forces their most high-profile military captive.
But wider questions remain even if the rebel reports are confirmed, including whether this could be just a one-time blow against expanding air offensives by the forces of Bashar Assad's regime. Just days ago, protesters across Syria pleaded for the rebels' main backers — including Turkey and Gulf states — to send anti-aircraft weapons for outgunned fighters.
Assad's military has significantly stepped up aerial attacks in recent weeks. Strafing from warplanes and close-range missile strikes from helicopter gunships have pushed back rebels in key fronts such as Aleppo, the country's largest city and the scene of fierce attacks to dislodge rebel positions.
As the sun was setting on Monday, an Associated Press reporter saw two fighter jets over the village of Marea, 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Aleppo.
Terrified residents collected on street corners and near the doors to their houses to watch and point as the jets dived low, dropping bombs that sent up clouds of smoke and firing machine guns that crackled over the village.
On one crowded market street, a handful of rebels with rifles ran toward the site of the bombings.
"What are you going to do, bring down a jet with a rifle?" a man screamed.
After the jets left, young men on motorcycles rushed to the bombing site on the edge of the village to find two craters the size of cars in a dirt field next to a swimming pool.
A man working at the privately owned pool said only three people were there at the time and that none was injured. He didn't give his name and tried to chase away journalists and residents seeking to film the pool.
It is unclear why the area was targeted. Residents said there was no rebel base nearby.
"In the summer, it's hot so the guys gather here to swim," said Abdullah Najjar, 21, adding that some of them could have been rebels.
"This is the only place we have in town to come for entertainment."
Nationwide, the relentless bloodshed — including alleged massacres by pro-regime mobs and retaliation killings by rebels — has already claimed more than 20,000 lives, activists say, and will be further examined in a report expected Wednesday by the U.N. Human Rights Council's independent commission probing abuses in Syria.
In another crack in Assad's diplomatic corps, a Syrian diplomat who worked with the U.N. rights council in Geneva said he left his post to join the opposition. A spokesman for the council, Rolando Gomez, identified the Syrian as Danny al-Baaj and described him as a junior member of his country's U.N. mission. Syria is not a member of the 47-nation council, but al-Baaj worked with it as part of his duties.
The claims of bringing down the warplane and capturing the pilot, meanwhile, are likely to become a key propaganda tool to rally rebel fighters.
Activists released a video which they say showed a government Soviet-made MiG warplane catching fire after it was hit by ground fire over Deir el-Zour province, an area near the Iraqi border where the opposition has strongholds. Hours later, another video shown on the pan-Arab network Al-Arabiya purported to show the captured pilot surrounded by armed rebels. "Introduce yourself," says another speaker with his back to the camera.
The alleged captive identified himself as Col. Rafik Mohammed Suleiman and says he was on a mission to attack a rebel-held area.
"What do you tell the officers of the Assad army?" the speaker asks the man, whose beard and hair are flecked with gray. The man who identified himself as the pilot urges them to defect.
The speaker — whose face remained hidden — said the hostage will be treated according to tenets of Islam and the Geneva Convention. The later reference could be an indirect reply to recent international outrage over videos posted on the Internet claiming to show summary executions and torture by rebels, including bloodied prisoners being gunned down against a wall as people cried: "Free Syrian Army Forever!"
Syria's state-run SANA news agency said the pilot ejected from a warplane after a technical failure during a "training mission." It added that a search was under way to find the pilot.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the plane was hit as it was conducting air raids on the town of Muhassan, which is close to a military airfield. The group quoted activists in the area as saying the plane was hit with fire from a heavy machine gun used by rebels in the area.
Syria has such anti-aircraft weapons in its arsenal and it's possible that some could have fallen into rebel hands. In June, Syria said it used anti-aircraft machine gun fire to bring down a Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jet it claimed crossed into Syrian aircraft. Turkey said the plane was in international flight zones.
Theodore Karasik, a regional security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said the rebel claim — if true — would suggest a stepped-up flow of outside military assistance. Older anti-aircraft weapons, possibly looted from Syrian arsenals such as variations on the Soviet-era SA-7, are considered overmatched by later model MiGs in the Syrian air force.
"If this is true, the conjecture would be that covert aid to the rebels is expanding with higher-grade anti-aircraft capabilities," Karasik said.
Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pledged to help supply the Syrian rebels, but the extent of the aid is unclear. Rebel commanders have consistently complained about lack of ammunition, including during recent battles in Aleppo. Last week, anti-regime protesters across Syria staged rallies calling for greater anti-aircraft firepower.
The possibility of a high-ranking military captive also could raise pressure on Assad's regime after a series of abductions, including 48 Iranians taken earlier this month and 11 Lebanese Shiites seized in May.
Rebels claim the Iranians include members of Tehran's Revolutionary Guard and were on a "reconnaissance mission" in Damascus. Iran insists the men were on a religious pilgrimage. The Lebanese are apparently held to try to pressure the government in Beirut to show greater support for the rebels — which is unlikely because of the strong influence of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which backs Assad.
On Sunday, the head of Syria's main opposition group in exile renewed a plea for international powers to impose a no-fly zone in border areas to protect civilians who are coming under increasingly intense attacks by regime warplanes and helicopters.
The site of the plane incident — the eastern, oil-rich region of Deir el-Zour — has been the site of heavy clashes between government troops and rebels over the past week. Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected to Jordan earlier this month, comes from the area.
Besides the rising death tolls in clashes — more than 50 on Monday according to the activist Observatory group — at least three Syria-based journalists have been killed in recent days. Al-Ikhbariya TV also said two other journalists and their driver are being held by rebels near the capital Damascus.