Syrian fighter pilot lands in Jordan, asks for asylum
AMMAN, June 21: A Syrian fighter pilot has landed in Jordan and asked for asylum, authorities in Amman have confirmed.
The pilot, a colonel, named by opposition activists as Hassan Merhi al-Hamadi, landed his MiG-21 jet at Jordan’s King Hussein military base this morning after leaving Syrian air space during a training exercise.
He is believed to be the first Syrian air force pilot to defect during the 16-month uprising. There are no other known instances of senior officials fleeing the country with valuable state assets.
Damascus has acknowledged that one of its jets landed in Jordan, after radar operators lost track of it at 10.34am. However, officials later said that the aircraft had been forced to make an emergency landing and that both pilot and plane would soon be returning home.
Though a symbol of the regime’s strength, Syria’s fleet of Russian-made MiGs has been conspicuously absent from the skies above the country’s towns and cities as the insurrection below has gathered strength.
Attack helicopters have been recently deployed near Lattakia and Homs and have proved decisive in battles against the Free Syria Army. Three helicopters refurbished by Russia were this week en route to Syria before the ship carrying them returned to port following an international furore.
The defection seems set to increase tensions between Syria and Jordan, which Damascus has accused of funnelling weapons to rebel groups that it brands as terrorists. Jordan’s monarch, King Abdullah, has twice questioned Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy as leader, but has otherwise publicly stayed out of the revolt that analysts fear may soon sweep his way.
Despite widespread splits among conscripts and the lower ranks of the armed forces, defections from the senior ranks have been rare. Three brigadier generals fled to Turkey along with a handful of colonels and majors, many of whom have assumed leadership roles among various factions of the Free Syria Army. No members of the regime’s inner sanctum are thought to have left Syria.
Syria is believed to have around 150 MiGs, making it one of the region’s strongest air forces. It also has several weapons bases and a stockpile of chemical weapons. The MiG fleet is believed to be close to 20 years old.
By arrangement with the Guardian