News Update :

Syria fighter pilot defection new blow to Assad

Saturday, June 23, 2012

SYRIA: A Syrian air force colonel won political asylum after landing his MiG fighter in Jordan Thursday, as a watchdog reported the deadliest day of fighting in Syria since the battered April ceasefire.

The pilot, who reportedly flew his jet under the radar to safely cross the border, was the first to defect from one of the most privileged branches of Syria’s security forces.

It came as human rights monitors reported that at least 168 people had died in Thursday’s clashes inside Syria, one of the bloodiest days since the uprising began in March 2011.

“The council of ministers has decided to grant the pilot, Colonel Hassan Merei al-Hamade, political asylum,” Jordanian Information Minister Samih Maaytah told AFP.

Earlier, a government official had said the Russian MiG-21 made an emergency landing at a base in Mafraq near the border.

Syrian state television said the plane was near the border when contact was lost at 0734 GMT. Jordan said it crossed the frontier minutes later.

The opposition Syrian National Council said that the plane “took off at high speed and flew at low altitude from a military base between Daraa and Sweida in the south of the country... to avoid detection by radar.” The pilot is from Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, “and his family is known for its opposition” to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, spokesman George Sabra said.

The Syrian defence ministry denounced Hamade in a statement on state television as a “deserter and a traitor to his country, and to his military honour,” and said that “he will be sanctioned under military rules.” Syria has made contact with Jordan to arrange for the return of the jet, the statement added.

Washington welcomed the defection.

“This is how these things start,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

“It is obviously a significant moment when a guy takes a $25 million plane and flies it to another country.” Tens of thousands of soldiers have defected since the revolt against Assad’s rule erupted in March last year, with thousands joining the rebel Free Syrian Army, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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