By Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — A Syrian air force warplane that “lost contact” with its Syrian controllers landed in neighboring Jordan on Thursday and the pilot was seeking political asylum, according to official accounts.
The case is the first publicly confirmed instance of a Syrian pilot escaping the strife-torn country with a warplane and then defecting.
Syrian state media reported that authorities had “lost contact” with a MiG-21 fighter that was on a training flight near the Jordanian border. State media identified the pilot as Col. Hassan Mirei Hamadeh.
A source indicated that Hamadeh is a father of five and a native of restive Idlib province, and that his family is said to be under rebel protection.
Jordan’s official Petra news agency quoted a “high-ranking official” from the Jordanian military confirming that the MiG-21 had landed at a Jordanian military base and that the pilot had asked for political asylum.
The pilot was being “debriefed” in Jordan, Reuters reported.
The incident would seem to be another blow for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is battling a 15-month rebellion and resisting calls for his resignation from numerous world capitals, including Washington.
The uprising has seen Syria suffer many defections from its mostly conscript army, but the military leadership and the elite officer corps are believed to have remained mostly intact.
The air force has been regarded as especially loyal to Assad, whose late father, Hafez Assad, was an air force pilot and commander before seizing power in 1970. His ascension marked the beginning of more than four decades of Assad family rule, now facing its gravest threat.
Jordan’s leadership is generally sympathetic to the rebellion against the Syrian president and is hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the bloody conflict.
Last November, Jordan’s King Abdullah made headlines when he suggested in a BBC interview that Assad should step down, but Jordan generally has not been as publicly critical of Assad’s crackdown on the rebels as have other Arab Gulf nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
However, the presence of a high-profile defector and his Syrian military jet seemed sure to complicate relations between the two Arab nations.
There were no reports of other crew members on the supersonic aircraft, a Russian-made jet fighter in the arsenal of many nations.