AMMAN (Reuters) - A Syrian air force pilot flew his MiG-21 fighter plane over the border to Jordan and was granted political asylum on Thursday, the first defection with a military aircraft since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Colonel Hassan Hamada landed at the King Hussein military air base 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Amman and immediately asked for sanctuary, Jordanian officials told Reuters.
“The cabinet has decided to grant the Syrian pilot political asylum upon his request,” Jordanian Minister of State for Information Samih al-Maaytah told Reuters.
Syria’s Defense Ministry called the pilot a “traitor to his country and his military honor” saying it would punish Hamada under military law and was in contact with Jordan to retrieve the aircraft.
In Washington, the Pentagon was delighted.
“We very much welcome the pilot’s decision to do the right thing,” said spokesman George Little.
“We have long called for members of the Syrian armed forces and members of the Syrian regime to defect and to abandon their positions rather than be complicit in the regime’s atrocities.”
The defection will boost the morale of the rebels as Assad’s forces intensify efforts to crush the uprising and international peace efforts are stalled.
Thousands of soldiers have deserted in the 15 months since the revolt broke out and they now form the backbone of the rebel army. But unlike last year’s uprisings in Libya and Yemen, no members of Assad’s inner circle have broken with him.
The army maintained its bombardment of downtown areas of Homs on Thursday despite a temporary truce that had been agreed to allow the evacuation of civilians and the wounded.
Aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent were forced to turn back because of shooting.
“We could not identify the source of the shooting,” said ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan.
“We will still attempt to enter the affected areas of Homs city but we cannot confirm the timing for that. Our dialogue with the parties continues,” Hassan said. The aid workers returned to Damascus.
Syrian state television blamed “armed terrorist groups” for thwarting the Red Cross mission while opposition activists in the city said the heavy army shelling on Sunni Muslim neighborhoods of Homs prevented evacuation of civilians.
“The army has no intention of relieving the humanitarian situation. They want Homs destroyed,” a Homs-based activist, Abu Salah, told Reuters.
The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 125 people were killed around the country during the day, with at least 18 of them in Homs.
In Douma, a conservative Sunni suburb of Damascus, army shelling killed at least 20 people as rebels fought tank-backed forces to prevent them from advancing into the district, home to 300,000 people, opposition activists said.
Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, has sent tanks across the country to put down the mostly Sunni-led uprising, which started with peaceful demonstrations and was later coupled with an armed insurgency against his rule that’s began in 2000, when he inherited power from his late father.
Opposition sources said pilot Hamada is a 44-year-old Sunni Muslim 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 as well as army soldiers are from Syria’s Sunni majority, although intelligence and senior officers are largely Alawite.
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 province, fled with his family, also to Turkey.
The defection could complicate the international scenarios of a conflict that many governments fear could spread beyond Syria and throughout 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”.
The United Nations says more than 10,000 people have been killed by Assad’s forces during the conflict. The government says at least 2,600 members of the military and security forces have been killed by what it characterizes as a plot by foreign-backed “Islamist terrorists” to bring it down.
With a joint U.N.-Arab League ceasefire plan in tatters and the international community divided, world leaders and diplomats have been unable to stop the bloodshed.
Moscow confirmed on Thursday that it was trying to send repaired combat helicopters to Syria but said they could “be used only for repelling foreign aggression and not against peaceful demonstrators”.
Russia, one of Assad’s main suppliers of military equipment, has shielded its long-standing ally Syria from tougher U.N. sanctions. It says the solution must come through political dialogue, an approach most of the Syrian opposition rejects.
The Arab League’s deputy secretary general, Ahmed Ben Helli, criticized Russia on Thursday for selling arms to Syria and said U.N. sanctions could be needed to force Assad and the rebels to implement international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
“Any assistance in aiding violence should be stopped. When you deliver military equipment you are helping to kill people. That should be stopped,” he told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Erika Solomon and Dominic Evans in Beirut, Thomas Grove in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, David Cutler in London; Editing by Jon Hemming