x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syrian fighter pilot defects to rebel cause, attacking Assad loyalists

Fighter pilot reportedly uses his jet to attack members of a pro-government militia before defecting. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL // A Syrian fighter pilot used his jet to attack members of a pro-government militia near the central city of Hama after defecting from government forces, Syrian rebels and a Turkish news agency reported yesterday.

There was no confirmation for the reports. If true, it would be the first time since the uprising in Syria began almost two years ago that a fighter jet has been used against the government. Air power has been a key advantage of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's forces as they battle rebel advances in several parts of the country.

"A fighter jet shelled shabiha gathering places in Al Safsafeyeh and Salhab, resulting in casualties in both villages," the Hama Revolutionist Command Council, part of the armed Syrian opposition, said about the air strike, which reportedly took place on Monday, in a Twitter post yesterday. It was referring to the regime-backed Shabiha militia, which is made up of armed men in civilian clothing.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency yesterday quoted a rebel commander in Hama named Ahmed Ebu Mustafa as saying a pilot had defected from the government air force with his plane.

The commander said the jet attacked shabiha positions in Al Safsafeyeh and "dozens of people" were killed or wounded, Anadolu reported. Al Safsafeyeh was described as a village where most people belonged to the Alawite minority, which also includes Mr Al Assad and many members of the Syrian leadership. Most of the Syrian rebels are Sunnis.

Nothing was known about where the jet came from and where it flew after the reported attack.

Several Syrian air force pilots have defected to other countries since the uprising began in March 2011, but there has been no known case of an opposition air strike so far, Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR), a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday.

"This would be the first time," Mr Ayhan said.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting broke out between rebels and government forces in parts of Damascus yesterday, as twin car bombs detonated in the central province of Homs, killing at least 12 people, activists said.

The clashes were focused in the city's western districts, and residents in the heart of Damascus said the heavy thud of shelling emanating from the neighbourhoods under attack was louder than in recent months, when government forces tried to dislodge rebels from the suburbs.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, said the shelling of Jobar and Qaboun yesterday was part of a wider government offensive on the towns and villages on the capital's doorstep that have been opposition strongholds since the uprising began.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said troops were chasing rebels in the suburbs of Harasta, Sbeineh and Jober.

Fighting also erupted in Homs province, where blasts targeting a military complex killed at least 12 people and injured dozens of others, activists said.

There were conflicting reports about the nature of the bombing in the city of Palmyra. The Observatory said two car bombs blew up near a compound that houses a military intelligence branch and a state security agency, killing 12 members of Syrian security forces and injuring 20 people, including eight civilians.

The state-run Sana news agency confirmed the attack, but said two suicide bombers detonated cars packed with explosives near a garage in a residential area of the city, killing an unknown number of people, wounding dozens and causing significant material damage in the area.

After the blasts, rebels clashed with government soldiers guarding the compound, according to the Observatory, which relies on reports from activists on the ground.


* With additional reporting from the Associated Press

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