Islamic State (Isis) fighters took a Jordanian pilot prisoner after his warplane came down in northeast Syria on Wednesday, the first captive taken from the United States-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. There were contradictory accounts as to whether his aircraft had been shot down or not.
“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 F-16 warplane had crashed during a Jordanian air force “military mission against the hideouts of the terrorist group”.
Jordan’s government spokesperson 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.
But Momani later told Reuters that new assessments showed there was no indication the plane had been shot at by the militants.
“We initially thought the plane might have been shot at, but we cannot confirm this now,” he added.
Isis didn’t shoot aircraft – US
An official source said King Abdullah met top commanders in Jordanian military headquarters, where a round-the-clock operations room had been set up after the pilot’s capture.
The US military’s Central Command said evidence showed Isis did not shoot down the aircraft. It did not disclose the nature of that evidence.
The head of Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, said the United States would “support efforts to ensure his safe recovery and will not tolerate ISIL’s attempts to misrepresent or exploit this unfortunate aircraft crash for their own purposes”.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. aircraft took to the air once the Jordanian jet crashed but the pilot was picked up before any rescue attempt could be launched.
Pictures of pilot
The Jordanian statement described Isis 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”.
Isis 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 identity card.
The images were later verified by 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.
His father, Safi Yousef, appealed to the captors to show mercy and release his son, whom relatives say is a pious Muslim.
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 Isis 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 US-led coalition which has been bombing Isis targets in Syria since September.
The staunch US ally has provided a logistics base for the US-led air campaign and is a hub for intelligence-gathering operations against the jihadists, a western diplomatic source said.
A US National Security Council spokesperson said the administration was in close touch with the Jordanian government and “our thoughts and prayers are with the pilot, his family, and our partners in the Jordanian Armed Forces”.
King Abdullah has been in the forefront of regional US 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 Isis targets in Syria, according to US Central Command.
Raqqa province, which borders Turkey, is almost entirely under the control of Isis 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 US is also bombing Isis targets in Iraq, where the group has seized swathes of territory.
Jordan vowed on Thursday to make every effort to save the pilot, Agence France-Presse reported.
Pope condemns persecution
Meanwhile, Pope Francis condemned the “brutal persecution” of minorities by Isis insurgents in his Christmas message on Thursday and urged people not to be indifferent to the suffering of so many around the world.
Tens of thousands of people turned out on St. Peter’s Square to hear the Argentine pope deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message, marking the second Christmas since his election last year.
Pope Francis also appealed for an end to conflicts in African countries, urged dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, condemned the attack by Taliban militants that killed more than 130 students in Pakistan last week, and thanked those helping the victims of the Ebola epidemic.
But he reserved his toughest words to defend the victims of Isis fighters who have killed or displaced Shi’ite Muslims, Christians and others in Syria and Iraq who do not share the group’s ideologies.
“I ask him, the Saviour of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution,” he said.
“May Christmas bring them hope, as indeed also to the many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, children, adults and elderly, from this region and from the whole world,” he said. – Reuters, AFP, Staff reporter