Syrian fighter pilot flies to asylum
BEIRUT — A Syrian fighter pilot on a training mission flew his MiG-21 warplane to neighbouring 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 kilometres) 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 honour.”
Syria’s Defence 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.”
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.