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Syrian pilot defects to Jordan in MiG

BEIRUT, Lebanon — An air force pilot landed his MiG-21 fighter at a Jordanian airbase Thursday, becoming the first Syrian airman to defect with his warplane since the rebellion against President Bashar Assad began 15 months ago.

Jordan granted political asylum to the pilot and planned to debrief him, the government said.

The incident was an embarrassment and a symbolic blow to Assad, whose government is locked in a bloody struggle against a determined insurgency

The Syrian Air Force — once commanded by Assad's late father, Hafez Assad, himself a former fighter pilot — has been regarded as especially loyal to the government.

The state-run Syrian press bureau issued a strongly worded statement denouncing the pilot, identified as Col. Hassan al-Hamada, as "a deserter and a traitor to his country" who "will be punished accordingly."

Opposition activists and Western governments seeking Assad's ouster lauded the pilot as a hero.

Whether Thursday's incident was a singular event or would trigger a wave of defections remained uncertain.

The uprising against Assad has seen the Syrian military suffer many desertions from its mostly conscripted ranks, drawn largely from the majority Sunni Muslim population, which has also been the driving force behind the uprising.

But the elite officer corps, — stocked with adherents of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam — are thought to have remained mostly intact.