By SARAH EL DEEB | Associated Press
BEIRUT — A government helicopter was shot down and its crew killed Friday in Syria's northwest, where a military offensive against opposition fighters is unfolding, a Syrian military official and activists said.
Turkey-backed opposition fighters claimed responsibility for downing the gunship, saying it was targeted in response to the Syrian army's indiscriminate targeting of civilians.
Videos posted online show a helicopter spiraling downward from the sky, with flames trailing behind as onlookers cheer.
A military official told Syrian state media that the helicopter was hit by a “hostile rocket” in the western countryside of Aleppo province. The unnamed official said the helicopter crashed and its crew was killed.
It was the second time this week that a government helicopter was downed in northwest Syria. Another government helicopter gunship was downed three days earlier, near the village of Nairab.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, said the helicopter was downed Friday in the village of Qibtan al-Jebel, north of Aleppo city. It said two crew members were killed and their bodies were found near the site of the crash.
The Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation claimed responsibility, saying it was avenging the killing of civilians. Syria's military has used helicopters to drop rudimentary barrel bombs on opposition areas throughout its campaign to reclaim territory. Rights groups have documented and criticized their use in the nine-year war.
Insurgents were also believed to be behind Tuesday's downing of a helicopter in which a two-member crew was killed. Throughout the war, insurgents have sought to acquire portable defense systems to target government warplanes, often acquiring them from seized stockpiles or from outside supporters.
The Observatory said the helicopter that was destroyed Friday was shot down by Turkish military forces stationed in the opposition-held region. There was no immediate comment from Turkey.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said only that a helicopter belonging to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces was brought down in the western Aleppo countryside.
The agency said the helicopter took off from an area near the Aleppo city center amid “clashes between the opposition and regime forces” and was shot at from the Qibtan al-Jabal region. It was seen crashing, unleashing a plume of smoke, the agency reported.
Turkey, backer of Syria's opposition, has been deploying equipment and troops in the region, which is home to more than 3 million people, in an attempt to halt the Syrian military's advances. But the increased Turkish footprint has also resulted in confrontations with the Syrian troops and clashes between the two sides have killed 13 Turkish military personnel and 13 Syrian troops.
The violence has displaced 800,000 people since Dec. 1 in one of the largest single waves of displacement ever in such a short period. Many of the displaced are living in the open, in tent settlements in sub zero temperatures.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.