Syrian pilot defects to Jordan with plane
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A Syrian fighter pilot flew his plane to Jordan on Thursday and asked for political asylum, the first defection of an air force pilot with his plane during the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah confirmed that the pilot had defected.
Initially, three Jordanian officials said the Russian-made MiG-21 made an emergency landing at the northern King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq, 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of the Jordanian capital and near the Syrian border.
The confusion underlined Jordanian concern about upsetting the Assad regime and being dragged into the Syrian conflict. The defection could have serious repercussions on relations between the two neighbors, who so far have maintained their business ties despite political tensions between them.
Jordan has taken in 125,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army and police defectors, which Syria has desperately sought their extradition.
Syria is one of Jordan's largest Arab trade partners, with bilateral trade estimated at $470 million last year. Also, 60 percent of Jordanian exports of mainly fruits and vegetables are routed through Syria for onward shipping to Turkey overland or to Europe via Syria's Mediterranean coast.
Maaytah, the information minister, said the plane landed in Jordan at 1045 local time (0745 GMT).
The official Petra news agency quoted an unnamed security official as saying the Syrian plane belonged to the country's air force.
A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, Ahmad Kassem, also confirmed that the plane had defected to Jordan and that its pilot was seeking political asylum. He said the group had encouraged the pilot to defect and monitored his activity until the jet landed safely in Jordan.
He said the pilot was based in Syria's southern region and identified him as Col. Hassan Merei Hammadeh.
A Jordanian security official also confirmed the name and the rank of the Syrian pilot. He said he took off his air force tag and kneeled on the ground in prayer at the air base after he landed his aircraft. The official insisted on anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
Syria's state-run TV reported earlier that authorities have lost contact with a MiG-21 that was on a training mission in the country. The report gave no further details.
Since an uprising against Assad's regime began in March last year, Syrian troops have refrained from using military warplanes against rebels.