Syrian air force pilot defects – and makes his getaway in a MiG-21

Colonel is granted asylum in Jordan after dramatic flight across border

A Syrian air force colonel was granted political asylum yesterday after flying his MiG-21 fighter jet to Jordan in the first defection of its kind since the uprising in his country began over 15 months ago.

The pilot, named as Colonel Hassan Hamada by the Syrian defence ministry, which denounced him as a "traitor to his country and to his military honour", landed the aircraft at the King Hussein military base 50 miles north-east of Amman. Jordanian officials said he had immediately asked for sanctuary. The Colonel's dramatic cross-border flight came on a day when Syrian anti-regime activists said 125 people had been killed across the country, at least 18 of them during a relentless shelling of Homs by government forces. An International Red Cross team trying to reach Homs's old city were forced to turn back because of shooting.

The New York Times also reported yesterday that a group of CIA officers was secretly operating in south-eastern Turkey in a mission to help allies decide which Syrian opposition groups should receive arms financed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Thousands of soldiers have defected during the uprising, forming the backbone of the rebel Free Syria Army. The most prominent to do so was Colonel Riad al-Assad last July. As recently as last week, Brigadier General Ahmad Berro, head of a tank unit in Aleppo province, fled Syria with his family for Turkey. Colonel Hamada is the first pilot to defect with an aircraft, prompting a public warning that he would be punished under military law.

In contrast to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya during the uprising there last year, there have been no defections so far from President Bashar al-Assad's mainly Alawite inner circle of senior intelligence and military officers. Reuters quoted anti-regime activists as saying that Colonel Hamada was a member of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, that he came from the northern Idlib province and had managed to smuggle his family to Turkey before his defection.

The activists said that the 44-year-old pilot's home town of Kfar Takharim had been repeatedly shelled in recent months and had been subjected to particularly intense artillery and helicopter bombardments in the past few days.

While the defection is undoubtedly a boost to the morale of anti-regime rebels, it is also likely to cause some nervousness in Amman by further increasing Jordan-Syria tensions after criticism by the Hashemite Kingdom of the Damascus regime's repressive response to the uprising. The Syrian Defence Ministry made it clear yesterday that it was in contact with Amman to seek the return of its aircraft.

In Homs, activists insisted that Syria had maintained its bombardment of central areas despite a temporary truce that was to have allowed aid workers to evacuate sick and wounded people.

One activist using the name of Abu Saleh told Reuters: "The shelling across the city has been relentless since last night, intensifying this morning. The army has no intention of relieving the humanitarian situation. They want Homs destroyed."

According to The New York Times' report, the CIA is partly working in Turkey to ensure that smuggled weapons are kept out of the hands of al-Qa'ida and "other terrorist groups".

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