Middle East

Pilot defection raises ante in Syria

A file picture shows a MIG-21 Flogger. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT: A Syrian pilot flew his warplane over the border to Jordan where he was granted political asylum Thursday, in a dramatic move heralded as “courageous” by President Bashar Assad’s opponents and “traitorous” by Syrian authorities. In the first defection from inside one of the most privileged arms of the security forces in the 15-month uprising against Assad, the pilot made an emergency landing of his MiG-21 fighter plane at an airbase close to the Jordanian border.

“The council of ministers has decided to grant the pilot, Colonel Hasan Merei al-Hamade, political asylum,” Jordanian Information Minister Samih Maaytah told AFP after a government official said the Russian MiG-21 landed at a base in Mafraq.

Syrian state television earlier reported the plane was missing, saying it lost contact near the Jordanian border at 0734 GMT. Jordan said it crossed the frontier minutes later.

The opposition Syrian National Council said: “The plane took off at high speed and flew at low altitude from a military base between Deraa and Sweida in the south of the country ... to avoid detection by radar.”

The Syrian Defense Ministry denounced Hamade and said it would seek a return of the aircraft.

“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,” said a ministry statement carried by state TV.

“Relevant contacts have been made with the authorities in Jordan in order to recover the jet on which the traitor pilot made his getaway.”

Washington welcomed the defection. “This is how these things start,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

“It is obviously a significant moment when a guy takes a $25 million plane and flies it to another country.”

Tens of thousands of soldiers have defected since the revolt against Assad’s rule erupted in March last year, with thousands joining the rebel Free Syrian Army, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The air force had been seen as a loyal arm of the regime, however. Assad’s father Hafez headed the service before seizing power in 1970, and air force intelligence remains one of the most feared branches of the security services.

The blow to the regime came as human rights monitors reported 119 people dead, including 66 civilians and 43 government troops, in one of the bloodiest days of the uprising.

At least 13 civilians were killed in the central city of Homs and another two unidentified people died in nearby Qusayr, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.The bombardment aborted two attempts by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent to evacuate trapped civilians, but the agencies vowed to try again Friday.

“Unfortunately, a second attempt, which we carried out in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross, has failed,” the Red Crescent’s Khaled Erksoussi said.

Hundreds of people are believed to be trapped in the heart of Syria’s third-largest city, unable to flee because of the fighting, the Geneva-based agency said.

According to a new toll Thursday, the Observatory said at least 10,480 civilians, 3,715 soldiers and 830 army defectors have been killed since March 2011.

Diplomats stepped up efforts to stem the bloodshed, with Arab states demanding Russia stop arming Syria and the U.S. and Britain working on a transition plan.

“Any assistance to violence must be ceased because when you supply military equipment, you help kill people. This must stop,” Arab League deputy chief Ahmad Ben Hilli told the Interfax news agency.

He also called for the mandate of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to be revamped, and for Iran’s inclusion in talks on ending the conflict.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon discussed Syria with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Thursday while at a Rio de Janeiro conference, a spokesman said.

The diplomatic flurry came as British newspaper The Guardian reported that Washington and London were working on an initiative for regime change based on Annan’s U.N.-backed plan that calls for a “Syrian-led political transition.”

Reports said Britain and the United States have discussed offering Assad immunity from prosecution if he steps down as part of a political transition, but Britain’s Foreign Office said “no new offer” was on the table.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any peace plan that calls for Assad to leave power and go into exile would not work because he would not quit.

He denied a claim by British PM David Cameron, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G-20 meeting in Mexico, that Putin had shifted his view of Assad and that discussions were now focused on a transition of power in Syria.

“When David Cameron ... said that Russia had changed its position, that is the purest untruth,” Lavrov said.

“It’s clear that a blueprint under which President Assad must go away somewhere before anything happens in terms of an end to violence and a political process will not work, because he won’t go,” Lavrov said.

Russia acknowledged Thursday that it was trying to send repaired combat helicopters to Syria and said it would continue to carry out arms contracts with Assad’s government despite Western and Arab criticism.

Speaking on the sidelines of an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Lavrov said that the Alaed, a cargo ship that changed course this week after losing its insurance cover off Scotland, had been carrying weapons to Syria.

Britain’s Foreign Minister Williams Hague said Tuesday that the Curacao-flagged vessel had apparently headed back toward Russia after a London-based insurer withdrew coverage when informed of allegations it was carrying weapons.

Lavrov defended the abortive delivery and lashed out at the West over the incident, saying the weapons could not be used against civilians protesting Assad’s rule and that the insurance company had no right to withdraw coverage.

“The ship was carrying air defense systems, which can be used only for repelling foreign aggression and not against peaceful demonstrators, and it was carrying three repaired helicopters,” Lavrov told Ekho Mosvky radio.

There is no full U.N. embargo of Syria, in part because Russia holds veto power as a permanent U.N. Security Council member.

“I will repeat: We are not violating anything, and we will continue to fulfill our contractual obligations,” Lavrov said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 22, 2012, on page 1.




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