Syrian pilot flies MiG to Jordan, gets asylum

BEIRUT — A Syrian fighter pilot on a training mission flew his MiG-21 warplane to neighboring Jordan, where he was given asylum Thursday in a defection from the fiercely loyal air force that signals some of the most ironclad allegiances in Damascus could be fraying. Syria immediately denounced the pilot as a traitor.

The brazen move was a clear triumph for the rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad and was the first defection by an air force officer with his plane since the uprising began in March 2011.

The pilot, identified as Col. Hassan Hammadeh, removed his air force tag and knelt on the tarmac in prayer after landing at King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq, Jordan, 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of Amman, a Jordanian security official said.

Hammadeh will be allowed to stay in Jordan on “humanitarian grounds,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“He was given asylum because if he returned home, his safety will not be guaranteed. He may tortured or killed,” the official said. He declined to say what Jordan will do with the jet.

Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, reported earlier that authorities had lost contact with a MiG-21 on a training mission. After the defection became clear, SANA quoted an unidentified military official as saying the pilot was “a traitor to his country and his military honor.”

Syria’s Defense Ministry said “measures will be taken against (the pilot) in accordance with Syrian military laws.” It added that Damascus was in contact with “concerned parties” about getting the jet back.

Thousands of soldiers have abandoned the regime since the military began firing on protesters at the start of the uprising. Many defectors have joined a rebel force known as the Free Syrian Army and the conflict looks more like a civil war every day. Still, the rebels remain far outgunned.

The Obama administration praised the pilot as “very courageous,” with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland adding that there have been hundreds of defections so far, mainly lower- and middle-ranking officials.

Pentagon spokesman George Little called the defection “the right thing” to do, and said he didn’t yet know whether the U.S. would have access to the pilot.

“We’ve long called for members of the Syrian armed forces and members of the Syrian regime to defect and to abandon their positions, rather than be complicit in the regime’s atrocities,” Little said.

“This is just one of countless instances where Syrians, including members of the security forces, have rejected the abysmal actions of the Assad regime, and it certainly will not be the last,” he said.

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford posted a message on Facebook urging soldiers to abandon the regime late Wednesday.

“Members of the Syrian military should reconsider their support for a regime that is losing the battle,” Ford wrote on the embassy’s page. “The Assad regime cannot outlast the desire of Syrian people for a democratic state.”

Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah confirmed the pilot had defected and had been granted political asylum. He said the plane landed at 10:45 a.m. (0745 GMT).

It was “the biggest and most dangerous defection in Syria since the crisis began,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights.

“Defections in the air force form a real danger to the Syrian regime,” he added. “The only people who are allowed to join the air force in Syria are strong regime loyalists.”

Despite more than a year of deadly violence, Syria’s military generally has stood by Assad — unlike the armies of Tunisia and Egypt, which turned on their leaders.

Assad and his father before him stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect in the past 40 years, ensuring the loyalty of the armed forces by melding the fate of the army and the regime.

The air force is particularly close to the regime. Assad’s late father and predecessor, Hafez, was an air force pilot and commander before seizing power in 1970.

Free Syrian Army spokesman Ahmad Kassem said the group had encouraged the pilot to defect and monitored his activity until the Soviet-made jet landed safely in Jordan. The pilot was based in southern Syria, he said.

The Syrian regime has been hit with defections before, although none as dramatic as the one Thursday.

In March, however, Turkish officials said two generals, a colonel and two sergeants defected from the Syrian army and fled to Turkey. Also that month, Syria’s deputy oil minister became the highest-ranking civilian official to join the opposition and urged his countrymen to “abandon this sinking ship.”

Brig. Gen. Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheik, who fled to Turkey in January, was the highest ranking officer to bolt. In late August, Adnan Bakkour, the attorney general of the central city of Hama, appeared in a video announcing he had defected.

In January, Imad Ghalioun, a member of Syria’s parliament, left the country to join the opposition, saying the country was suffering sweeping human rights violations.

Late Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford posted a message on Facebook calling on soldiers to abandon the regime.

“Members of the Syrian military should reconsider their support for a regime that is losing the battle,” Ford wrote on the embassy’s page. “The Assad regime cannot outlast the desire of Syrian people for a democratic state.”

The defection came at a time when Syria has started using its air force against rebels — something it had appeared reluctant to do previously. But in recent weeks, as rebels attacked government tanks, Syrian troops used helicopter gunships to besiege opposition areas.

The deputy head of the Arab League urged Russia to stop supplying arms to the regime.

“Any facilitation of violence should be stopped, because when you supply arms, you are helping to kill people,” the official, Ahmed Ben Hilli, was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Russia has been a key source of weapons for Syria in the past four decades. Syria has acquired billions of dollars’ worth of combat jets, helicopters, missiles, armored vehicles and other military gear from Moscow.

Syria is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East, and Moscow wants to retain a foothold in the region. Although the Kremlin has criticized Assad for heavy-handed use of force during the 18-month uprising, it also has shielded the regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lashed out at Britain for pressuring a Russian-operated ship heading to Syria with a load of weapons to turn back.

Lavrov told Ekho Moskvy radio that a British insurer’s decision to remove the ship’s coverage reflected the “unreliability of the British insurance system.” He also said the British government defied international law by asking the insurance company to act.

He said the MV Alaed was carrying air defense systems and three refurbished helicopters to Syria, adding that the shipment was legitimate and that Russia would not abide by the European Union’s arms embargo on Syria.

The U.K.-based insurer Standard Club said it removed insurance coverage for the ship owner when it became aware it was carrying munitions, a clear breach of its rules. The move forced the MV Alaed to turn back toward Russia. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the Curacao-registered ship was heading to the port of Murmansk, where it would change its flag to the Russian one.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby called for diplomatic and political pressure to halt the violence in Syria. He said a meeting of five U.N. Security Council members due June 30 in Geneva will come up with a “mechanism,” but refused to elaborate.

Elsewhere in Syria, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to evacuate wounded and sick civilians and those who want to leave rebel-held areas in the central city of Homs.

On Thursday, ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said a joint ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent team tried to enter the city but were forced back “due to the shooting.” He told The Associated Press the group would try to enter the city again.

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has been one of the hardest hit since the uprising began. Rebels control several neighborhoods, which government troops have attacked in the past two weeks. Activists said conditions in the areas under siege are growing more dire by the day. In some parts, there is barely any electricity or running water, telephones are unreliable and residents are forced to hide in shelters during daily shelling.

Across the country Thursday, activists reported dozens killed, including soldiers. The figures were impossible to verify because Syria restrict journalists inside the country.

The pilot’s defection also was a sensitive issue for Jordan, which wants to avoid getting dragged into the Syrian conflict. Jordan already has taken in 125,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army and police defectors, and Syria is seeking their extradition.

The presence of a high-profile defector could complicate ties between the countries. Syria is one of Jordan’s largest Arab trade partners, with bilateral trade estimated at $470 million last year.

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