(Reuters) – Islamic State fighters took a Jordanian pilot prisoner after his warplane was shot down in northeast Syria on Wednesday, the first captive taken from the U.S.-led coalition battling the jihadi group.
Jordan’s armed forces said one of its pilots had been captured after a coalition air raid over the province of Raqqa.
“Jordan holds the group (IS) and its supporters responsible for the safety of the pilot and his life,” said a statement read out on state television.
It said the plane had crashed during a Jordanian air force “military mission against the hideouts of the terrorist group”.
Jordan’s government spokesman Mohammad Al-Momani told satellite TV station Al Hadath the jet fighter “was shot at from the ground by rocket missiles and was brought down” and that an attempt to rescue the pilot before he was captured failed. He did not elaborate.
An official source said King Abdullah was meeting top commanders in Jordanian military headquarters, where a round-the-clock operations room had been set up after the pilot’s capture.
U.S. officials said no U.S. aircraft or personnel had been involved in the incident and the cause of the crash was unknown.
The Jordanian statement described Islamic State as a “group that does not conceal its terrorist plots, committing many criminal acts from wanton destruction to killing innocent Muslims and non-Muslims in Syria and Iraq”.
Islamic State social media published pictures appearing to show the pilot being held by the group’s fighters and images of what they said was his Jordanian military ID card.
The images were verified by two relatives contacted by Reuters who said they had been notified by the head of the Jordanian air force the pilot was First Lieutenant Muath al-Kasaesbeh, aged 27. The army separately confirmed his name.
A friend said Kasaesbeh, who is from a prominent Jordanian family, was fervent in his commitment to his mission and felt it was a religious duty to fight extremist groups such as Islamic State that were “distorting the true spirit of Islam”.
One of the published images showed the pilot, wearing a white shirt, being led out of water by armed fighters. Another showed him on land surrounded by at least a dozen fighters in military fatigues and equipped with assault rifles.
Jordan is one of the countries participating in the U.S.-led coalition which has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria since September.
The staunch U.S. ally has provided a logistics base for the U.S.-led air campaign and is a hub for intelligence-gathering operations against the jihadists, a western diplomatic source said.
King Abdullah has been in the forefront of regional U.S. allies supportive of the campaign but has said radical Sunni extremists cannot defeated by military means alone and their ideology must be confronted with reason.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have also joined or supported the strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, according to U.S. Central Command.
Raqqa province, which borders Turkey, is almost entirely under the control of Islamic State fighters.
Boosted by arms seized in Iraq, the group evicted most rival rebels from the province earlier this year and took control of a string of government military bases over the summer, including an air base.
The United States is also bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq, where the group has seized swathes of territory.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Andrew Roche)
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