Jordan has granted political asylum to a defecting Syrian pilot on Thursday hours after he landed his jet at a military air base in the kingdom, government spokesman Samih Maaytah told AFP news agency.
“The council of ministers has decided to grant the pilot, Colonel Hassan Merei al-Hamade, political asylum, on his request,” said Maaytah, who is also information minister.
Syria has branded the pilot a “traitor” and said it wanted to recover the warplane he used to flee into neighburing Jordan.
“The pilot is considered a deserter and a traitor to his country, and to his military honor, and he will be sanctioned under military rules,” state television quoted the defense ministry as saying.
The Syrian air force Russian-made MiG, which was reported missing by Syrian state TV earlier on Thursday afternoon, made an emergency landing at a military base in the neighboring country.
Syrian state television named the pilot as Colonel Hassan Hamada, saying communications were lost with his plane while he was on a training mission near the border with Jordan.
Hamada asked for political asylum in Jordan, Maaytah said earlier on Thursday.
“The Syrian air force Russian-made MiG made an emergency landing at the King Hussein air base in Mafraq,” in northern Jordan near the border with Syria.
“[The pilot] is being debriefed at the moment,” Maaytah had told Reuters.
Syrian state television said communication was lost with a plane of the same model at 10:34 a.m.
The Syrian National Council along with activists had claimed the pilot had defected prior to confirmation of the news.
Georges Sabra, spokesman for the SNC told AFP: “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. 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.”
He added that the pilot is from Deir Ezzor (in eastern Syria) “and his family is known for its opposition” to Assad’s regime.
Activists said this was the first defection involving an aircraft since the start of the 15-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
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 the Syrian uprising, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Thursday.
The United States swiftly welcomed the defection of the Syrian fighter pilot.
“We welcome this pilot’s decision to do the right thing,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told AFP.
“We have long called for the military and members of the Syrian regime to defect and abandon their positions rather than be complicit in the regime’s atrocities.
“This is just one of countless instances where Syrians, including members of the security forces, have rejected the horrific actions of the Assad regime, and certainly it will not be the last.”
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 and well as army soldiers are from Syria’s Sunni majority, although intelligence and senior officers are largely Alawite, the minority sect to which Assad and his family belong and which forms their power base.
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 to Turkey.
Though a boost to Assad’s foes, the pilot’s defection could complicate the international scenarios of a conflict that many governments fear could spill over Syria’s border and spread though 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.”