Syrian fighter pilot defect
A Syrian pilot sought asylum after landing his MiG fighter jet in neighbouring Jordan today, in the first such air force defection in a 15-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
"The pilot asked for political asylum in Jordan," Information Minister and government spokesman Samih Maayatah told AFP, after a government source said the MiG-21 had made an emergency landing at an air base in Mafraq in northern Jordan near the Syria border.
Syria's state television said the warplane, flown by Colonel Hassan Merei al-Hamade, was flying near the southern border when contact was lost around 0734 GMT, and Jordan's armed forces said it landed across the frontier minutes later.
Tens of thousands of soldiers have defected from Syria's armed forces since a revolt erupted in March last year, thousands of them joining the the rebel Free Syrian Army, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The conflict in Syria has killed more than 15,000 people since the uprising against Assad's regime broke out in March 2011, according to the Observatory's latest overall toll.
Diplomats stepped up efforts to stem the bloodshed on Thursday, with the Arab League demanding that Russia stop supplying arms to Syria and the United States and Britain reportedly working on a power transition plan.
"Any assistance to violence must be ceased because when you supply military equipment, you help kill people. This must stop," the pan-Arab bloc's deputy secretary general Ahmed Ben Hilli was quoted as saying in comments translated into Russian by Interfax news agency.
Ben Hilli also called for UN-Arab Leauge envoy Kofi Annan's mandate 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.
His remarks came as British newspaper The Guardian reported that Washington and London were working on an initiative to for regime change in Damascus based on Annan's UN-backed peace plan that calls for a "Syrian-led political transition."
Moscow has steadfastly resisted Western pleas to help remove Assad from power despite the escalating hostilities that have left the Annan peace plan in tatters.
An escalation of violence has pushed a team of nearly 300 UN observers in Syria to suspend their operations, although they remain in the strife-torn country.
In the latest bloodshed, at least 46 people were killed in violence across Syria, including 17 government troops, the Observatory reported.
At least 13 civilians were killed in the flashpoint central city of Homs and another two unidentified people died in nearby Quasyr, the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Streaming video from Homs on the bambuser.com website showed smoke billowing from a residential district as the staccato of automatic gunfire was punctuated by the thud of mortar blasts.
Elsewhere, eight soldiers and a rebel were killed in heavy fighting at Armanaz, near Turkey in the northwestern province of Idlib, following a rebel attack on an army barracks, said the Observatory.
In the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the uprising, at least 10 people were killed as the town of Inkhel was shelled and stormed by troops who then carried out a series of raids.
"If the international community remains silent and happy to just observe the situation, more blood will flow in Syria," the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
"The violence has only become worse in the past two months, and will become more bitter," he added.
The fresh bloodshed comes a day after violence cost the lives of 98 people across the country, including 53 civilians, 35 soldiers and 10 rebel fighters, according to the Britain-based watchdog.
It has halted a planned evacuation of hundreds of stranded civilians from the Homs area by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
"The negotiations are still underway with the parties concerned to evacuate civilians, in cooperation with the ICRC," Khaled Erksoussi, the Red Crescent operations chief in Syria, told AFP.
"The teams on site are awaiting the green light to evacuate civilians from the parties who control the dangerous neighbourhood. We need to reach an agreement with them to ensure our security," he said, referring to the rebels.
The ICRC said on Wednesday that it had made a request for a temporary halt in fighting on Tuesday to the government and opposition groups. Both parties said they would respect the pause.
The Red Cross and the Red Crescent had been ready to enter Homs city, including the hard-hit districts of Khaldiyeh and Jourat al-Shiah, which activists say have been pounded mercilessly for days.
Last week the Observatory said more than 1,000 families were stuck in the region around Homs and spoke of dozens of people wounded in urgent need of medical care.