BEIRUT (AP) — In the whirlwind of Syria’s civil war, two Russian pilots parachuted from their aircraft into a chaotic front-line mountainous region near the border with Turkey after their aircraft was hit by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet.
As the two figures tumbled, almost serenely, out of the sky, they were spotted by Syrian rebels on the ground, who opened fire in their direction, hitting the pilot, Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov, who was dead when he landed in their midst.
The co-pilot and navigator, Capt. Konstantin Murakhtin, was luckier, the wind blowing his parachute few miles closer to the front-line, nearer to government troops. There, amid the chilly ravines, he waited for more than 12 hours until a Syrian commando unit was able to reach him.
A look at the complex rescue operation offers a glimpse at the complicated, often rugged terrain in Syria’s civil war, where the front-lines are blurry. Multiple groups with shifting alliances are fighting on the ground and the sky is crowded with aircraft bombing various targets.
Both Russian airmen ejected after their aircraft was hit by a Turkish jet Tuesday. Turkey said their plane had violated Turkish airspace, a claim Russia has denied.
Adding to the day’s dramatic events, one of two Russian helicopters sent to the crash site to search for survivors was also hit by rebel fire, killing one serviceman and forcing the chopper to make an emergency landing, the Russian military said.
Syrian rebels said they hit the helicopter with a U.S.-made TOW missile, and released a video that purports to show the chopper bursting into flames.
“It was like James Bond,” said Zakaria Ahmad, a spokesman for a rebel faction operating in a rugged area known as the Turkmen mountains, where Tuesday’s operations unfolded.
The area is mostly inhabited by Syrian Turkmen, an ethnic minority with close ties to Turkey, and has recently been the site of heightened military activity amid a Syrian ground offensive and Russian airstrikes.
Some reports said Murakhtin was found by a Syrian special operations team acting together with members of the Lebanese Hezbollah group. The Syrian army said it was a joint Syrian-Russian operation.
Murakhtin, speaking in televised remarks from the Russian base in Syria where he was taken Wednesday, said he was fully confident their plane didn’t veer into the Turkish airspace, “not even for a single second.”
“As a navigator, I knew every hill there and could determine location even without instruments,” after flying numerous combat missions in the area, he said.
He denied Turkey’s claim that its jets made repeated warnings before opening fire. “There haven’t been any warnings, neither radio, nor visual,” he said, adding that the Turkish jets could have flown a parallel course to demand that the Russian plane change direction.
Dressed in combat fatigues and speaking with his back to the camera, he said he was anxious to keep flying missions from the base “to pay them back for my commander.”
Murakhtin did not give details of the rescue operation.
“I feel good in general. The military doctors work miracles,” he said. “I am waiting impatiently to be released by the doctors so I can immediately return to service. I will ask the commanders to keep me at the air base.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the operation to rescue the pilot was conducted jointly by Russian and Syrian special forces and lasted 12 hours, ending at 0040 GMT Wednesday.
The Syrian army said Murakhtin was rescued by a special unit that carried out an overnight “qualitative” operation.
In a statement, it said the Syrian and Russian forces penetrated 4.5 kilometers (2.7 miles) into an area held by “terrorists” to rescue the pilot.
However rebels cast doubt on the official Syrian account. Ahmad, a spokesman for a rebel faction known as the Sham Front, which is affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, said the pilot was blown away to a front-line area that neither side had previously been able to reach.
He said the pilot landed in a mountainous, wooded area.
“Residents in nearby areas were hearing the buzz of warplanes and helicopters all night,” he told The Associated Press from Syria via Skype.
Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the Russian soldier landed in no man’s land, although technically behind rebel lines. His monitoring group relies on local activists across Syria.
He said the rescue operation was carried out by Syrian commandos, aided by the Russians who pinpointed the soldier’s location through GPS.
“The commandos struggled for hours to pull the pilot to a safe area from where he was airlifted to Hemeimeem,” he said, referring to the Russian air base in Latakia province.