Amid Syria’s Civil War, a James Bond-Style Rescue Operation

November 25, 2015 Updated: November 25, 2015
FONT BFONT SText size

BEIRUT  — 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.

In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. showing a Russian Su-24M during a Russian air raid in Syria. Russia has been carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State group fighters in Syria since the end of September at the request of President Bashar Assad, Russia's long-term ally. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. showing a Russian Su-24M during a Russian air raid in Syria. Russia has been carrying out airstrikes on Islamic State group fighters in Syria since the end of September at the request of President Bashar Assad, Russia’s long-term ally. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

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.

A Russian air force Tu-160 bomber launches a cruise missile on a target in Syria on Nov. 20, 2015. Russians bombed Syrian rebel groups in retaliation over a pilot being killed, according to the groups. (AP Photo)
A Russian air force Tu-160 bomber launches a cruise missile on a target in Syria on Nov. 20, 2015. Russians bombed Syrian rebel groups in retaliation over a pilot being killed, according to the groups. (AP Photo)

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.

This frame grab from video by Haberturk TV, shows a Russian warplane on fire before crashing on a hill as seen from Hatay province, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. Turkey shot down the Russian warplane Tuesday, claiming it had violated Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings. Russia denied that the plane crossed the Syrian border into Turkish skies. (Haberturk TV via AP)  TURKEY OUT
(Haberturk TV via AP)


This frame grab from video by Haberturk TV, shows smoke from a Russian warplane after crashing on a hill as seen from Hatay province, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. Turkey shot down the Russian warplane Tuesday, claiming it had violated Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings. Russia denied that the plane crossed the Syrian border into Turkish skies. (Haberturk TV via AP)  TURKEY OUT
This frame grab from video by Haberturk TV, shows smoke from a Russian warplane after crashing on a hill as seen from Hatay province, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. Turkey shot down the Russian warplane Tuesday, claiming it had violated Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings. Russia denied that the plane crossed the Syrian border into Turkish skies. (Haberturk TV via AP)

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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to suspend all Russian flights to Egypt on Friday after a recommendation by his chief of intelligence for a halt until the cause of last week's crash of a passenger jet in the Sinai Peninsula is determined, as an official said pieces of wreckage from the plane had been brought to Moscow to test for possible traces of explosives. (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA-Novosti via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015.  (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA-Novosti via AP)

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.

(AP Photos)
(AP Photos)

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.