Russia suffered the biggest single loss of life of its 10-month-long mission in Syria when it said five people died in a military helicopter that was shot down after delivering aid.
The Mi-8 transporter came under fire from the ground in Syria’s north-western Idlib province as it was returning to the Hmeimeen air base after delivering humanitarian aid to the city of Aleppo, the Russian Defense Ministry said in an emailed statement Monday. Three crew and two officers from the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria were on board, the ministry said.
“Those on board the helicopter, as far as we know from information received from the Defense Ministry, were killed,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday. The crew “died as heroes” because they sought to avoid people on the ground as their craft crashed, he said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced last week the start of a major humanitarian operation for people in Aleppo after Syrian government forces seized control of the last rebel supply routes into the east of the city. Heavy fighting is taking place as rebel forces try to break the siege in Syria’s former commercial capital, which has been divided between government and opposition forces since 2012. The Russian airforce is “providing active support” to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops fighting Islamic State and other militants near Aleppo, Shoigu said.
Graphic images were posted on Twitter of what were alleged to be bodies of crew members from the crashed helicopter, including one showing a corpse being dragged along the ground by people, as well as identity documents said to have been retrieved from the site.
Russia has used Mi-8 helicopters to drop 500 food kits to people in areas of Aleppo controlled by armed groups, the Defense Ministry said on its website on Sunday.
Prior to the crash, 14 Russian servicemen have died since President Vladimir Putin ordered the military campaign in Syria last September, according to the View business daily’s website. The intervention changed the tide of the conflict in favor of Assad in a war that’s killed more than 280,000 people and sent millions fleeing to neighboring countries and Europe. Efforts led by the U.S. and Russia to negotiate a political solution to the conflict have stalled.
(c) 2016, Bloomberg · Ilya Arkhipov, Donna Abu-Nasr