A Syrian air force colonel flew a fighter jet into neighboring Jordan, where he was granted political asylum, according to Jordanian and U.S. officials.
Jordan’s government approved the pilot’s asylum request, the official Petra news agency reported, citing Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications Sameeh Al-Maayteh. The jet flew into Jordan at 10:45 a.m. yesterday and landed at a military air base, Petra reported earlier.
Syrian authorities “lost contact” with a Russian-made MiG-21 jet at 10:34 a.m. while it was on a training mission on the southern border, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported, citing an unidentified official. The agency identified the pilot as Col. Hassan Merhi al-Hamade.
Thousands of Syrian servicemen have defected, and many joined the rebellion that broke out last year against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that broke out last year. This is the first time an air force pilot was reported to have defected with a jet, a development U.S. officials said may encourage others.
“It’s obviously a very significant moment when a guy takes a $25 million plane and flies to another country seeking asylum,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday in Washington. “That’s how these things start.”
More than 120,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan since the outbreak of the unrest, and thousands more have fled to Turkey and Lebanon. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
Asked about Syria’s request that Jordan return the fighter jet, Al-Maayteh said in a phone interview, “Giving the plane back to Syria needs several technical procedures, and in light of international norms it is the Jordanian army that is in charge of this issue.”