Russian jet pilot 'pulled grenade pin' to avoid capture in Syria's Idlib

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Images said to show the wreckage of the Sukhoi-25 aircraft

Russian media have lauded a pilot killed in Syria as a hero, saying he detonated his grenade to avoid being captured by jihadists who had shot his plane out of the sky.

Roman Filipov's reported last words were: "Here's for the guys."

His Sukhoi-25 ground-attack aircraft was shot down over rebel-held Idlib province. He survived the attack and ejected, but died in a ground fight.

Former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham said it had attacked the plane.

TV Zvezda, which is controlled by Russia's defence ministry, said the pilot was posthumously presented with the Hero of Russia medal, also known as the Gold Star.

It reported that he told his superiors he had been hit by a missile, before ejecting himself from the plane.

The BBC has not been able to independently verify what he said at the time or how this information was obtained.

The UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said that fighters had captured the pilot and later killed him.

The Syrian government, backed by Russian air power, launched a major offensive in December against rebel groups in Idlib.

Air strikes in the region intensified on Sunday, reportedly killing about 20 people, the day after Mr Filipov's plane was shot down.

Nine people were also treated for breathing difficulties after a bomb believed to be filled with chlorine was dropped on the town of Saraqeb.

What more do we know of the incident?

The Sukhoi-25, a close-support ground-attack aircraft, was operating over the town of Maasran in Idlib.

There had been dozens of Russian air strikes in the area over the previous 24 hours, monitoring groups said.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, said it had attacked the plane

Video posted on social media showed the jet being hit and quickly catching fire, before spiralling to the ground.

Video from the ground showed the wreckage with red stars on the wings.

Russia's defence ministry said: "The pilot had enough time to report that he had ejected in an area controlled by the militants".

"During a battle with terrorists, the pilot was killed."

Who shot the plane down?

In a statement released on social media, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group claimed it had shot down the plane using a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile.

The group said the plane had been carrying out an air raid over the nearby city of Saraqeb.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has operated in the region for years under a series of different names.

Is this a rare event?

Very. It could be the first time rebels have shot down a Russian fighter jet since Moscow began its Syria campaign in September 2015, although rebels did bring down a helicopter in 2016.

Media caption,
This video shows a plane falling to the ground on the Syrian border with Turkey

About 45 Russian military personnel have been confirmed dead in Syria, along with an unknown number of contractors.

In 2016, a Russian officer was awarded the Hero of Russia posthumously after being killed during a battle against the Islamic State group.

What's going on in Idlib?

It is supposed to be a "de-escalation zone", as agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran. But fighting escalated in November and the Syrian government launched a major offensive there in December.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is the main adversary.

There are 2.65 million people in north-western Syria as a whole, the UN says, and 1.16 million of them are internally displaced people (IDPs).

Is this the only fighting in north-west Syria?

No. Turkey launched an operation on 20 January called "Olive Branch" aimed at removing Kurdish militiamen from Afrin, to the north-west of the city of Aleppo.

The Turkish army said seven Turkish soldiers were killed in action on Saturday, including five who died in an attack on a tank by the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units) militia.

It was heaviest Turkish death toll in one day since the operation began.