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A church dome is seen through a broken window of the Sednaya Convent, which was damaged by artillery fire in Sednaya, north of Damascus, Syria Muzaffar Salman/AP/Press Association Images (file photo)

Syrian air force pilot defects to Jordan and is granted political asylum

The pilot flew his plane to Jordan while on a training mission.

A SYRIAN FIGHTER pilot on a training mission flew his MiG-21 warplane to Jordan today and asked for political asylum.

It’s the first defection of an air force pilot with his plane during the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.

The pilot, identified as Colonel Hassan Hammadeh, removed his air force tag and kneeled on the tarmac in prayer after landing his plane at King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq, Jordan, 70 km north of Amman.

A Jordanian government spokesperson has told AFP that Jordan has granted political asylum to the pilot.

The defection was a triumph for the rebels who are fighting to overthrow Assad. The air force is considered fiercely loyal to the government, and the defection suggests some of Syria’s most ironclad allegiances are fraying.

A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, Ahmad Kassem, said the group had encouraged the pilot to defect and monitored his activity until the jet landed safely in Jordan. He said the pilot was based in southern Syria.

Syria’s state-run TV reported earlier in the day that authorities had lost contact with a MiG-21 that was on a training mission in the country. The report gave no further details.

Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah confirmed that the pilot had defected.

The defection is a sensitive issue for Jordan, which wants to avoid getting dragged into the Syrian conflict. Jordan already has taken in 125,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army and police defectors, and Syria is seeking their return.

Syria is one of Jordan’s largest Arab trade partners, with bilateral trade estimated at $470 million last year.

The Syrian regime has been hit with defections before, although none as dramatic as the fighter pilot’s. Most have been low-level conscripts in the army.

In March, however, Turkish officials said that two Syrian generals, a colonel and two sergeants had defected from the army and crossed into Turkey. Also in March, Syria’s deputy oil minister became the highest-ranking civilian official to join the opposition and urged his countrymen to “abandon this sinking ship” as the nation spiraled toward civil war.

Brigadier General Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheik, who fled to Turkey in January, was the highest ranking officer to bolt. In late August 2011, Adnan Bakkour, the attorney general of the central city of Hama, appeared in a video announcing he had defected.

In January, Imad Ghalioun, a member of Syria’s parliament, left the country to join the opposition saying the Syrian people are suffering sweeping human rights violations.

Meanwhile Russia’s foreign minister has said that any peace plan that calls for Assad to leave power and go into exile will not work because the president will not quit.

Sergei Lavrov said that Assad is not ready to negotiate his removal from power or sit down to talks because he still enjoys popular support.

The Guardian reports that Assad could be offered safe passage or even clemency in the UK or America if he agrees to join peace talks. Yesterday US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin together called for an “immediate cessation of all violence” in Syria.

It’s estimated that at least 14,400 people have died during the 15-month uprising.

- Additional reporting by AP and AFP

Syrian conflict: Obama and Putin issue joint call for peace>

Monday: Syrian activists report renewed shelling in Homs>

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