A Syrian pilot has been granted political asylum after landing his MiG fighter jet in neighbouring Jordan, in the first such defection during a revolt that activists say has left more than 15,000 people dead.
“The council of ministers has decided to grant the pilot, Colonel Hassan Merei al-Hamade, political asylum,” Jordanian Information Minister Samih Maaytah told the AFP news agency after a government official said the Russian MiG-21 had made an emergency landing at a base in Mafraq near the border.
Syria’s state television said the warplane was flying near the border on Wednesday when contact was lost at 07:34 GMT, with Jordan saying it had 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 pilot is from Deir Al Zor [in eastern Syria] and his family is known for its opposition” to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, spokesman George Sabra added.
The Syrian Defence Ministry said that the defected pilot was a “traitor” and that it was in contact with Jordanian authorities to retrieve the aircraft.
“The pilot is considered a deserter from service and a traitor to his country and his military honour,” a statement by the ministry said.
“Contacts are underway with the Jordanian side to make arrangements to return the plane.”
Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh, reporting from the Jordanian capital Amman, said: This is going to pose a really serious threat for the Jordanian government which needs to think about what it’s going to do about having this Syrian warplane on Jordanian soil.
“It is a fairly advanced warplane and now it is a liability for the Jordanian authorities.”
El-Shamayleh said there were concerns about Syrian defectors crossing the Jordanian border.
“Once they enter the borders there are extensive background checks run on them,” our correspondent said.
Tens of thousands of soldiers have defected from Syria’s armed forces since the revolt against Assad’s rule erupted in March last year, thousands of them joining the rebel Free Syrian Army.
More than 120,000 Syrians fleeing the violence in their homeland have taken refuge in Jordan, according to the Amman government. The United Nations has registered 20,000 of them.
Diplomats, meanwhile, stepped up efforts to stem the bloodshed, with Arab states demanding that Russia stop supplying arms to Syria and the United States and Britain reportedly 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 Ahmed Ben Hilli told the Interfax news agency.
Ben Hilli also called for the mandate of UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to be revamped, and for Iran’s inclusion in talks on ending the conflict.
“To make [the Annan] plan work, we need to find a new mechanism and the mandate of the special envoy must be reassessed, so we can be sure that all the sides are observing the plan,” he said without elaborating.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon discussed the situation in Syria with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday on the sidelines of an international conference in Rio de Janeiro, a spokesman said.
The diplomatic flurry came as the British newspaper The Guardian reported that Washington and London were working on an initiative for regime change in Damascus based on Annan’s UN- and Arab-League-backed plan that calls for a “Syrian-led political transition”.
But 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.
Transition of power
“A scheme according to which President Assad should leave somewhere before something happens in terms of a cessation of violence and a political process, this scheme simply does not work from the very start,” Lavrov said.
“It is infeasible because he will not leave.”
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Lavrov, whose country remains in close contact with Assad’s government, indicated that the Syrian leader was not ready to negotiate his removal from power because he was convinced he still enjoyed popular support.
“I do not think Assad will be sitting down at the negotiating table,” said Lavrov, pointing to the results of a widely criticised May 7 parliamentary election which he said showed a majority still backed the Syrian leader.
Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, called on Syria’s military, from foot soldiers to senior officers, to reconsider their support for Assad, warning those committing atrocities will be hunted down and prosecuted.
In a message on his Facebook page, Ford said the US and the international community “will work with the Syrian people to locate the military members responsible for this violence and hold them accountable”.
“And we will support the future Syrian government’s efforts to bring those people to justice,” he said.
In the latest bloodshed, at least 93 people were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, among them 52 civilians, 38 soldiers, and three rebels, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.