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Syria air force colonel flies to Jordan, gets political asylum

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A handout picture obtained from Ammon News and supplied by Syrian activists shows the Syrian air force Russian-made MiG-21 plane that a pilot landed with in the King Hussein military base in Mafraq in northern Jordan on Thursday.

Updated at 10:45 a.m. ET: A Syrian fighter pilot flew his plane to Jordan on Thursday and was granted political asylum, the first defection of an air force pilot with his plane during the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.

Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah confirmed that the pilot had defected, with the plane landing in Jordan at 10:45 a.m. local time (3:45 a.m. ET), The Associated Press reported.

Maaytah later told Reuters that the pilot had been granted political asylum by the Jordanian authorities.

Initially, three Jordanian officials said the Russian-made MiG-21 made an emergency landing at the northern King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq, 43 miles north of the Jordanian capital and near the Syrian border, while Syrian state TV reported its authorities had lost contact with the jet during a training mission.

Syrian state TV, the rebel Free Syrian Army, and a Jordanian security official all said the pilot was a colonel named Hassan Merei Hammadeh.

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The Jordanian official -- who insisted on anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter -- said the pilot took off his air force tag and kneeled on the ground in prayer at the air base after he landed his aircraft.

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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.

The defection could have serious repercussions on relations between Jordan and Syrian, which so far have maintained their business ties despite political tensions between them.

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Jordan has taken in 125,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army and police defectors, which Syria has desperately sought their extradition.

Since an uprising against Assad's regime began in March last year, Syrian troops have refrained from using military warplanes against rebels.

Evacuated thwarted by gunfire
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Thursday that its aid workers were forced to turn back as they tried to begin the evacuation of wounded and sick people from the city of Homs.

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The independent aid agency said on Wednesday that Syrian forces and rebel militants had agreed to its request for a humanitarian truce to evacuate trapped civilians and the wounded after more than 10 days of intense fighting.

"An ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent team was heading to the old city of Homs early this morning, however we had to turn back due to the shooting," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan told Reuters. "We will attempt to go back to the area today (Thursday) in order to evacuate persons wounded and sick, women and children."

NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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