x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Syrian fighter pilot seeks political asylum in Jordan

Fighter pilot lands jet at military air base in Jordan, marking the first such air force defection since the Syrian uprising began.

AMMAN // A Syrian pilot has sought political asylum after landing his jet at a military air base in Jordan, an official said Thursday, marking the first such air force defection in the 15-month anti-regime revolt.

"The pilot asked for political asylum in Jordan," Information Minister and government spokesman Samih Maaytah said, without elaborating.

A Jordan Armed Forces statement said the Syrian air force Russian-made MiG-21 landed at 0745 GMT.

"The jet landed safely at a Jordanian military air base, and the pilot has asked for political asylum," it added.

A government official said the pilot "made an emergency landing at the King Hussein air base in Mafraq," in northern Jordan near the border with Syria.

According to Syrian state television, authorities had "lost contact with a MiG-21 while it was on a training mission".

"The plane, flown by Colonel Hassan Merei Al Hamade, was near the southern border of Syria when contact was lost at around 10.34am (0734 GMT)," the report said.

Georges Sabra, spokesman for the main opposition group, the exiled Syrian National Council, said the pilot had "defected".

"The plane took off at high speed and flew at low altitude from a military base situated between Daraa and Sweida in the south of the country," Sabra said. "These planes usually fly in twos or threes, not alone."

"It is certain that the pilot has defected," he added. "It is not normal that a jet should take off at such speed. It is to avoid detection by the radars," said Sabra.

"The pilot is from Deir Ezzor (in eastern Syria) and his family is known for its opposition" to president Bashar Al Assad's regime, he added.

More than 120,000 Syrians fleeing the violence in their homeland have taken refuge in Jordan, according to the Amman government. The United Nations has registered 20,000 of them.

More than 15,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start in March 2011 of an uprising against President Bashar Al Assad's iron-fisted rule, according to human rights monitors.