Breaking: US-led coalition shoots down Syrian jet over Tabqa to protect partner forces

RAQQA (Reuters) – A US warplane shot down a Syrian army jet on Sunday in the southern Raqqa countryside. Washington said the jet had dropped bombs near US-backed forces. Damascus said the plane was downed while flying a mission against Islamic State militants.

A Syrian army statement released on state television said the plane crashed and the pilot was missing. It said the incident took place on Sunday afternoon near a village called Rasafah.

The “flagrant attack was an attempt to undermine the efforts of the army as the only effective force capable with its allies … in fighting terrorism across its territory”, the statement said. “This comes at a time when the Syrian army and its allies were making clear advances in fighting the [Islamic State] terrorist group.“

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Later, US central command issued a statement saying the Syrian plane was downed “in collective self-defense of coalition-partnered forces”, which were identified as fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Tabqa.

It said “pro-Syrian regime forces” attacked an SDF held town south of Tabqa and wounded a number of fighters, driving them from the town. In a show of force, coalition aircraft stopped the initial advance. When a Syrian army SU-22 jet then dropped bombs near the US-backed forces, the statement said, it was immediately shot by a US F/A-18E Super Hornet.

Before it downed the plane, the coalition “contacted the its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established “de-confliction line” to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing”, the statement said.

The coalition does “not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces” but will not “hesitate to defend itself or its “partnered forces from any threat”, the statement said.

The US-led coalition has in recent weeks escalated its aerial bombing campaign in northern Syria and Raqqa province. US-backed forces have encircled the city of Raqqa and captured several districts from the militants.

The Syrian army has also taken territory from retreating Isis militants in the western Raqqa countryside and seized back some oil fields and villages that had been under the militants’ control for almost three years.