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Jul 1, 1:13 PM EDT

Syria rebels: Pilot killed after plane crashed near Damascus


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BEIRUT (AP) -- A Syrian pilot whose warplane crashed east of the capital of Damascus on Friday has been killed, a rebel group said, blaming Syria's al-Qaida branch known as the Nusra Front for his death.

The state-run news agency SANA said earlier that a warplane crashed due to "technical failure during a training mission" and that the pilot, who ejected successfully from the plane, is missing. The eastern suburbs of Damascus, where the crash took place, are held by rebels opposed to President Bashar Assad.

The Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, a rebel group operating east of Damascus, said it shot down the plane and published an interview with the pilot who said he has been a Syrian army pilot for the past 16 years. The claim that the plane had been shot down could not be confirmed. Rebels in Syria have long called on their backers to arm them with anti-aircraft missiles against Syrian airstrikes.

The group later published on its social media channels a picture of him dead, apparently shot in the head, and said a member of the Nusra Front had killed him despite the extremist group's pledge to hand him over to Jaish al-Islam. That claim could not be independently confirmed either.

Jaish al-Islam, like the al-Qaida affiliate, is considered a terrorist group by the Syrian government and Russia.

Later on Friday, the Syrian army's general command accused Jaish al-Islam of killing the pilot, saying it represents "irrefutable evidence of the criminal nature of these terrorists groups," and dismissing calls that Damascus consider it as moderate opposition.

"This ugly crime, which was committed by Jaish al-Islam, will not pass unpunished," said the statement, carried by SANA.

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