Syrian Rebels Capture Pilot, Pentagon Deplores Government…

August 19th, 2012

Reuters

Amateur video claims to show a captured Syrian pilot after rebels say they brought down a government fighter jet.

Syrian rebels have circulated dramatic video 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.

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 on Thursday by the UN 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 UN 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 UN 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 Colonel 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 grey. 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.

‘DESPICABLE UPTICK IN ATTACKS’

the Pentagon deplores what it sees as an increasing use of air power by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government against rebels, but has stopped short of suggesting a move toward any additional steps like a no-fly zone.

the comments came just days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States and Turkey were looking at all measures to help Syrian rebels overthrow Assad, including establishing a no-fly zone.

Asked about the use of Syrian air power at a briefing with reporters, Pentagon spokesman George Little said: “We’ve seen a very troubling and despicable uptick in attacks from the air, perpetrated by the Syrian regime.”

“This is yet another example of their depraved behaviour. this needs to stop as does the violence they continue to pursue against their own people,” Little said.

Little did not comment on the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone, which would use the threat of force to stop Syrian warplanes from operating over all or part of Syria’s territory.

While the Pentagon has done basic contingency planning on a range of options in Syria, putting in place a no-fly zone – even if the allies agree to do so – could take weeks or months.

the imposition of no-fly zones by foreign powers was crucial in helping Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year, but it required NATO attacks to destroy Libyan air defences.

In March testimony to Congress, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned of potential “severe collateral damage” in establishing a no-fly zone because Syria’s air defence systems, which are far more sophisticated than Libya’s, were located in populated areas.

at the same hearing, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that Syria had far more sophisticated air defence systems than existed in Libya, concentrated in one-fifth of the terrain.

– AP, Reuters

Syrian Rebels Capture Pilot, Pentagon Deplores Government…

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