The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is reportedly flying three fighter jets captured from an air base evacuated by the regime’s air force near Aleppo, a group monitoring the war said on Friday.
Former Iraqi pilots who have joined the group are reportedly training members of ISIS to fly the jets, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that it was the first time that the militant group had taken to the air.
The group, which has seized land in Syria and Iraq, has been flying the planes over the captured al-Jarrah military airport east of Aleppo, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, according to Reuters.
In August ISIS militants also seized several Russian MiG-21B fighter jets from the Tabqa Air near the city of Raqqa, the stronghold of the group in Syria.
ISIS has regularly used weaponry captured from the Syrian and Iraqi armies and has overrun several military bases but this was the first time it had been able to pilot warplanes.
“They have trainers, Iraqi officers who were pilots before for (former Iraqi president) Saddam Hussein,” Abdulrahman said, according to Reuters.
“People saw the flights, they went up many times from the airport and they are flying in the skies outside the airport and coming back,” he said, citing witnesses in northern Aleppo province near the base, which is 70 km (45 miles) south of Turkey.
It was not clear whether the jets were equipped with weaponry or whether the pilots could fly longer distances in the planes, which witnesses said appeared to be MiG 21 or MiG 23 models captured from the Syrian military.
The U.S. Central Command said it was not aware of the reports.
“We’re not aware of (ISIS) conducting any flight operations in Syria or elsewhere,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder said.
“We continue to keep a close eye on (ISIS) activity in Syria and Iraq and will continue to conduct strikes against their equipment, facilities, fighters and centers of gravity, wherever they may be.”
Former Syrian air force commander Brig. Gen. Asaad Awad al-Zubi played down the reports of ISIS flying fighter jets, saying the plane that militant group captured “are in bad condition and cannot possibly fly.”
“These jets are not only old, but their spare pieces no longer exist in the world,” Brig. Zobi, told Al Arabiya News Channel, adding that the jets were deployed in the Syrian air force in 1964 and “were going to aircraft boneyard.”
Pro-ISIS Twitter accounts had previously posted pictures of captured jets in other parts of Syria, but the aircraft had appeared unusable, according to analysts and diplomats.
The countryside east of Aleppo city is one of the main bases of ISIS in Syria, where the al-Qaeda offshoot controls up to a third of the country’s territory.