A Syrian fighter pilot on a training mission flew his MiG-21 warplane to Jordan on Thursday and asked for political asylum, the first defection of an air force pilot with his plane during the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.
The pilot, identified as Col. 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 security official said.
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.
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.
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.
Brig. Gen. Mostafa Ahmad Al Sheik, who fled to Turkey in January, was the highest ranking officer to bolt. In late August, 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.
Defected pilot a 'traitor': Syrian defence ministry
Syria on Thursday denounced an air force pilot who defected as a "traitor" and said it wanted to recover the warplane he used to flee into neighbouring Jordan.
"The pilot is considered a deserter and a traitor to his country, and to his military honour, and he will be sanctioned under military rules," state television quoted the defence ministry as saying.
"Relevant contacts have been made with the authorities in Jordan in order to recover the jet on which the traitor pilot made his getaway," the ministry added.
Jordan granted political asylum to Colonel Hassan Merei al-Hamade Thursday, hours after he landed at a military air base in the kingdom in the first such air force defection in the 15-month revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
A Jordan Armed Forces statement said the Russian-made MiG-21 landed at 0745 GMT. According to Syrian state television, authorities had "lost contact with a MiG-21 while it was on a training mission."
George Sabra, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, the main exiled opposition group, said the pilot had "defected."
"The pilot is from Deir Ezzor (in eastern Syria) and his family is known for its opposition" to Assad's regime, he added.