Syria fighter pilot defects in new blow to Assad
DAMASCUS: A Syrian pilot sought asylum after landing his MiG fighter jet in neighboring Jordan on Thursday, in the first such air force defection in a 15-month revolt against President Bashar Assad's regime.
"The pilot asked for political asylum in Jordan," Information Minister and government spokesman Samih Maayatah told AFP, after a government source said the MiG-21 had made an emergency landing at an air base in Mafraq in northern Jordan near the Syria border.
Syria's state television said the warplane, flown by Col. Hassan Merei Al-Hamade, was flying near the southern border when contact was lost around 0734 GMT, and Jordan's armed forces said it landed across the frontier minutes later.
|Emergency landing to defect or because the MiG-21 was falling apart?|
Tens of thousands of soldiers have defected from Syria's armed forces since a revolt erupted in March last year, thousands of them joining the the rebel Free Syrian Army, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
...Capital of the last overtly fascist regime in the world...
calls pilot a "traitor to his country and his military honor," in contact with Jordanians to retrieve MiG-21 fighter plane.
Opposition sources said pilot Hamada is a 44-year-old Sunni Moslem from Idlib province and he had smuggled his family to Turkey before his dramatic defection.
His hometown Kfar Takharim has been repeatedly shelled in the past several months and suffered intense artillery and helicopter bombardments in the last few days, opposition campaigners who spoke to his family said.
Many air force personnel and well as army soldiers are from Syria's Sunni majority, although intelligence and senior officers are largely Alawite, the minority sect to which Assad and his family belong and which forms their power base.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies says the air force has 365 combat capable aircraft, including 50 MiG-23 Flogger and MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters and 40,000 personnel - a reflection of the overwhelming military advantage Assad has over his poorly-equipped foes.
The most prominent defection so far in the conflict was that of Colonel Riad al-Asaad last July, who helped set up the rebel Free Syria Army after taking refuge in Turkey.
Last week Brigadier General Ahmad Berro, head of a tank unit in Aleppo
...For centuries, Aleppo was Greater Syria's largest city and the Ottoman Empire's third, after Constantinople and Cairo. Although relatively close to Damascus in distance, Aleppans regard Damascenes as country cousins...
province, fled with his family to Turkey.
Though a boost to Assad's foes, the pilot's defection could complicate the international scenarios of a conflict that many governments fear could spill over Syria's border and spread though the already volatile Middle East.
Ties between Jordan and Syria were already strained - Jordan has criticized Assad over his crackdown on the uprising but has been restrained in its rhetoric.
Amman is nervous over a possible Syrian military reaction after months of border tension as thousands of Syrians flee the violence to Jordan.
A Jordanian official, who asked not to be named, said the incident with the pilot was "difficult to handle".
Posted by: Steve White