The Russian pilot who was shot down in Syria at the weekend commit suicide with a grenade before he could be captured by Syrian rebels, the Russian defense ministry said Monday.
Russian authorities have now lionized the pilot’s death, seizing a propaganda victory from Syrian rebels who dramatically shot down the Sukhoi Su-25 jet involved in a major push into Idlib province.
A last stand
- After taking heavy fire, Major Roman Filipov ejected and parachuted into a rebel stronghold in Syria’s north-western Idlib province, Russia said.
- Severely wounded, Filipov opened fire on incoming militants with his service weapon before killing himself with a grenade as they closed in, according to Russia.
- An unverified video released by rebel-linked Youtube channel “Idlib Plus” purported to show about 10 fighters closing in on Filipov as he sheltered behind a rock.
- In the video, what sounds like small arms fire is followed by someone shouting in Russian “this is for my boys.” Immediately afterwards, what looks to be a small explosion sends fighters scrambling and a small plume of smoke into the air.
- The Russian Defence Ministry posthumously awarded Filippov the title of Hero of the Russian Federation.
- Russian media reported that Syrian and possibly Russian special forces were trying to retrieve his body, and to find out who supplied the anti-aircraft weapon to the rebels.
A spokesman for al-Qaida-linked rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, said the downing was retaliation for Russia’s bombing campaign. “This is for the criminal invaders to know that our skies are not a picnic for them and they cannot cross through without paying the price,” Mahmoud Turkistani said in comments carried by the Ebaa news agency, an outlet seen as close to the rebel group.
“The pilot died heroically,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “We are proud of our heroes.” Russia intitially said that Islamist rebels had killed Filipov.
Peskov also said: “It’s extremely worrying that shoulder-launched surface-to air missiles are in the hands of the terrorists.”
Why are Russian jets in Idlib? Idlib province is one of the last rebel-held bastions in the country. Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air support and Iranian arms, have intensified their offensive in Idlib in recent months and days. Rebel-held areas have been targeted in at least 50 airstrikes since early Saturday, according to an independent monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Who are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham? Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) are a Salafist jihadi alliance led by the al-Qaida linked al-Nusra Front. In recent months they have ousted more moderate rebel groups from Idlib. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Syria’s seven-year-old civil war are also living in Idlib.
How did HTS shoot the jet down? According to Russia, the plane was most likely hit in its right engine with a heat-seeking missile shot from a hand-held launcher, such as a Soviet-designed Strela or an American Stinger. The jet was probably flying close to the ground, and since the incident Russia has ordered its warplanes in Syria to fly higher.
What happens next? Russia will continue its bombing campaign. Meanwhile Turkey is moving closer, after launching a fresh offensive against Kurdish fighters two weeks ago into neighbouring Afrin region.