Syria rebels claim jet downing as army advances in Aleppo
DAMASCUS, Syria - Syrian rebels claimed they downed a fighter jet Monday, August 13, in what would be a major coup for the opposition but the regime seized the upper hand in Aleppo as it advanced into a new rebel-held district.
Foreign ministers of the Islamic Cooperation Organisation called on heads of state gathering in Mecca for a summit on Tuesday and Wednesday to suspend Syria from the 57 nation-bloc as shocking videos emerged showing alleged rebel atrocities in the Aleppo area.
State media said a military plane on a training mission crashed in the east of the country after suffering a malfunction and that the pilot had ejected.
But the Free Syrian Army, which has been calling for the international community to arm it with anti-aircraft weapons as it battles escalating regime attacks from the sky, claimed it shot down the Russian-made MiG in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
"With God's help, a MiG 23 plane was downed in Muhasen on Monday morning, by the hands of the Ahfad Mohammed (Grandchildren of Mohammed) Brigade," said Captain Abul Laith, whose group is part of the FSA.
Another group calling itself the "Revolutionary Youth of the Land of the Euphrates" distributed a video showing a man identified as pilot Mufid Mohammed Suleiman, surrounded by three armed men.
"My mission was to bomb the town of Muhasen," said the purported pilot.
FSA spokesman Kassem Saadeddine identified the pilot as Colonel Mufid Mohammed Sleiman and said he was a member of the Alawite minority community of President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle.
"He is a member of a squadron I used to fly with... before I defected," Saadeddine told AFP via Skype. "I served with him for 15 years, and he is a staunch enemy of the revolution."
If confirmed, the attack would be the first time the rebels have succeeded in downing a Syrian plane since Assad's regime launched an increasingly brutal crackdown on protests 17 months ago.
International concern is mounting over how to end a conflict that has triggered a major humanitarian crisis and sent around 140,000 Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries, with scores of people being killed every day.
At least 103 lost their lives on Monday, 58 of them civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The opposition has accused the regime of increasingly resorting to firing from fighter planes, particularly on the second city of Aleppo which has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks.
Opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council issued a new appeal for the establishment of no-fly zones similar to those set up over Libya during last year's conflict.
SNC head Abdel Basset Sayda told AFP the rebels wanted "two no-fly zones, one in the north near the Turkish border, and another in the south near the border with Jordan."
Washington said that Assad's government was employing more air power in its war with the rebels.
"We've seen a very troubling and despicable uptick in attacks from the air, perpetrated by the Syrian regime," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
Asked if the Pentagon was moving towards enforcing a possible no-fly zone, he said: "We plan for contingencies."
The decision by Islamic bloc foreign ministers to recommend Syria's suspension was reached "based on consensus with an absolute majority" in favor, the bloc's secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said after a preparatory meeting in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah.
It will be put to heads of state at their summit in Mecca on Tuesday and Wednesday for "final approval," he added.
Sources close to the meeting said that only Algeria and Iran -- Syria's closest ally -- were against the recommendation.
"We certainly do not agree agree with the suspension of any OIC member," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said after the meeting.
"We have to look for other ways, means and mechanisms for resolving conflicts and crises," he said.
Meanwhile, grisly footage of apparent atrocities in the Aleppo area emerged, appearing to show rebels callously throwing bodies off a post office building, while another video showed a man, blindfolded and bound, as his throat was savagely cut.
A crowd gathered around several bodies crumpled on the ground outside a building said to be in Al-Bab, near Aleppo, before another three victims were hurled one-by-one from the rooftop.
In another video, a blindfolded man with his hands tied behind his back is forced down on to a pavement in Aleppo, calling out: "I would rather die by a bullet."
As the group chanted "Allahu Akbar" an assailant forced what appeared to be a small knife repeatedly across his throat as his blood spurted onto the pavement.
Both sides in the increasingly vicious conflict have been accused of human rights violations as reports of cold-blooded killings mount, although the authenticity of the latest videos could not be verified.
Syria's army gained some ground as it advanced into a new rebel-held area of Aleppo, the northern metropolis seen as pivotal to the outcome of the conflict.
"With tanks, Syria's regime forces have stormed the west of the district of Saif al-Dawla," said the Observatory. "They are now clashing with the rebels, and parts of Salaheddin are being shelled."
Rebels in July took over several districts but regime forces last week reclaimed most of the Salaheddin district that neighbors Saif al-Dawla.
More than 21,000 people have been killed since March last year, with fighting escalating after the failure of outgoing international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan and the regime hit by an increasing number of defections by high-ranking officials.
The latest to flee Monday was Syria's top representative at the UN Human Rights Council. - Agence France-Presse