BEIRUT — Syrian rebels shot down a military helicopter flying over Damascus on Monday during heavy clashes with government forces, according to the rebel Free Syrian Army.
The fighting comes after an intense and bloody government operation in the areas surrounding the capital that has left hundreds dead in recent days. More than 320 people were killed Saturday in the suburb of Darayya alone, many of them shot in the head, in what opposition groups are calling the biggest massacre of the conflict so far.
Dramatic videos of the helicopter attack, which allegedly took place in the Qaboun area of northeastern Damascus, were posted online Monday. One video shows the helicopter smoking and circling horizontally before taking a dramatic vertical dip and plunging to the ground in a fiery ball. The sound of heavy machine gun fire can be heard on the video along with chants of “God is great.”
Col. Aref Hammoud, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said there was no indication yet that any of the crew had survived the crash or had been captured by rebel forces.
“The regime is using helicopters and planes in their attack on cities and residential areas to take revenge on them because they are our supporters,” he said. “Recently when the air force starts attacking an area, it means they are preparing for a ground attack.”
The Shaam News Network, which supports the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, posted a bulletin on its Facebook page Monday noting that a helicopter had crashed in the Qaboun area of Damascus and blaming Israelis for the attack.
“This is not our first encounter with the Israelis inside of Syria,” the posting read. “But it’s the first step towards their end. Our trust in the army has no limits.”
Two weeks ago, rebel forces claimed to have shot down a jet in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour and captured the pilot. The Syrian government blamed a technical problem for that crash.
These incidents suggested that rebel forces may be acquiring heavier and more sophisticated weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles, and may be more proficient at using weapons already in their arsenal, analysts said. Rebel forces have posted recent videos of fighters posing with what appear to be surface-to-air missiles.
The military air campaign has taken a heavy toll on both rebel forces and civilians in Damascus, Aleppo and a number of smaller cities across the country.
Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande called in a speech on Monday for Syrian opposition groups to form a provisional government, which he said France would recognize, the Associated Press reported.
According to AP, Hollande said, “France asks the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government — inclusive and representative — that can become the legitimate representative of the new Syria.”