CAIRO - A Syrian fighter pilot changed course during a training mission today and landed his jet in neighboring Jordan, where he asked for - and was granted - political asylum.
It's the first defection of its kind, a dramatic desertion that will likely give a boost to the opposition fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria's state news agency SANA reported this morning that contact was lost with Col. Hassan al-Mirei Hamadeh's MiG-21 aircraft around 10:34 a.m. during a training flight in southern Syria. Moments later, he landed at the King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq in northern Jordan.
Syria's Ministry of Defense called the defector "a deserter and a traitor to his country and military honor, and will be punished accordingly." The ministry is also working with the Jordanians to get the plane back.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "It's obviously a significant moment when a guy takes a $25 million plane and flies to another country and asks for asylum. This is how these things start."
Jordan's minister of information confirmed Syrian opposition accounts that the pilot was seeking asylum, adding that the pilot was being debriefed. Later it was reported that his request had been granted on humanitarian grounds given the grave risk he would face in being returned to Syria.
A Jordanian security official told the Associate Press that after landing the Russian-made plane, the pilot removed his dog tags and kneeled in prayer on the tarmac.
The vast majority of defections from the Syrian military have been from the lower ranks, often Sunni Muslim conscripts refusing to fight against fellow Sunnis rising up against the regime which is dominated by members of the Alawite sect. Some senior officers, including generals, have defected as well but none among the highest echelons of Assad's forces and none have had a very damaging effect on the Syrian forces. Hamadeh's defection is believed to be the first with such a significant piece of military hardware.
Planes are not known to have been used in the 16-month uprising, but the opposition has accused the Syrian regime of using attack helicopters and numerous videos have been posted online. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of sending helicopters to Russia, but officials later walked back her comments, saying the helicopters were already Syrian-owned and had been repaired in Russia.
Granting Hamadeh asylum is a highly sensitive issue for Jordan, with Syria being one of its biggest trading partners. In November, Jordan's King Abdullah told the BBC that "If Bashar [al-Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down." But otherwise, Jordan's criticisms of Assad's regime have paled in comparison to its allies and fellow Syrian neighbor Turkey.