Syrian rebels are believed to have used surface-to-air missiles to down two government aircraft in less than 24 hours – the first time such weapons have been used in the 20-month insurrection.
The downing of the aircraft is being hailed as a significant tactical advance in northern Syria, where fierce clashes between Assad regime forces and rebels over the summer have given way to several months of stalemate and rising despair on the opposition side.
A warplane crashed on Wednesday near Darat Azzah outside Aleppo after being shot at from the ground. The wounded pilot was captured. Late on Tuesday, a regime helicopter also crashed. Several videos uploaded to the internet clearly showed a missile hitting it broadside before it plummeted to earth.
Rebel groups claimed to have seized the missiles used to shoot down the regime aircraft during raids over the past week on regime bases in the north. At least two of the raids are known to have yielded large stocks of weaponry and ammunition.
Late on Wednesday, a Syrian rebel posing with a Russian-made heat-seeking missile launcher claimed credit for the attacks. He said the missile he claimed to have used had been part of a stash of weapons stolen during a raid on a nearby base.
Such rebel raids have increased dramatically over the past fortnight. At least four large bases are widely reported to have fallen: one in the east of the country, two in the north and one major air force facility near Damascus. Six other outposts are also believed to have changed hands in what is shaping up to be a pivotal phase of the civil war.