AMMAN - A Syrian air force pilot flew his MiG-21 fighter plane over the border to Jordan and was granted political asylum on Thursday, the first defection with a military aircraft since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
The pilot landed at the King Hussein military air base 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Amman and immediately asked for sanctuary, Jordanian officials told Reuters.
"The cabinet has decided to grant the Syrian pilot political asylum upon his request," Jordan's Minister of State for Information Samih al-Maaytah told Reuters.
Syria's defense ministry called the pilot a "traitor to his country and his military honour".
In a statement it said it would punish the man, named as Colonel Hassan Hamada, under military law. Syria was in contact with Jordanian authorities to retrieve the aircraft, it added.
The defection will boost the morale of the rebel movement fighting Assad at a time when government forces are intensifying efforts to crush the uprising and international peace efforts are stalled.
Thousands of soldiers have deserted government ranks in the 15 months since the revolt broke out and they now form the backbone of the rebel army. But unlike last year's uprisings in Libya and Yemen, no members of Assad's inner circle have broken with him.
Elsewhere on Thursday, the Syrian army maintained its bombardment of downtown areas of Homs even though a temporary truce had been agreed to allow aid workers to evacuate the sick and wounded.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said its aid workers had been forced to turn back on the way into Homs old city because of shooting but would try again later in the day.
"The shelling across the city has been relentless since last night, intensifying this morning. The army has no intention of relieving the humanitarian situation. They want Homs destroyed," activist Abu Salah told Reuters from Homs.
The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 125 people were killed around the country during the day, with at least 18 of them in Homs.
Pilot's family fled to Turkey before defection
Opposition sources said pilot Hamada is a 44-year-old Sunni Muslim from Idlib province and he had smuggled his family to Turkey before his dramatic defection.
His hometown Kfar Takharim has been repeatedly shelled in the past several months and suffered intense artillery and helicopter bombardments in the last few days, opposition campaigners who spoke to his family said.
Many air force personnel and well as army soldiers are from Syria's Sunni majority, although intelligence and senior officers are largely Alawite, the minority sect to which Assad and his family belong and which forms their power base.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies says the air force has 365 combat capable aircraft, including 50 MiG-23 Flogger and MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters and 40,000 personnel - a reflection of the overwhelming military advantage Assad has over his poorly-equipped foes.
The most prominent defection so far in the conflict was that of Colonel Riad al-Asaad last July, who helped set up the rebel Free Syria Army after taking refuge in Turkey.
Last week Brigadier General Ahmad Berro, head of a tank unit in Aleppo province, fled with his family to Turkey.
Though a boost to Assad's foes, the pilot's defection could complicate the international scenarios of a conflict that many governments fear could spill over Syria's border and spread though the already volatile Middle East.
Ties between Jordan and Syria were already strained - Jordan has criticized Assad over his crackdown on the uprising but has been restrained in its rhetoric.
Amman is nervous over a possible Syrian military reaction after months of border tension as thousands of Syrians flee the violence to Jordan.
A Jordanian official, who asked not to be named, said the incident with the pilot was "difficult to handle".