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SYRIAN PILOT SAYS HE ATTEMPTED TO FLEE HOMELAND 6 WEEKS AGO

SHARE SYRIAN PILOT SAYS HE ATTEMPTED TO FLEE HOMELAND 6 WEEKS AGO

A Syrian pilot who flew a Soviet-made MiG-23 to Israel and requested political asylum told Israeli ground staff he tried to defect six weeks ago but was intercepted, Davar newspaper reported Thursday.

Maj. Adel Bassem, 34, who landed his modern fighter at a civilian airstrip in northern Israel Wednesday, said he decided to defect after Syrian secret police last year broke his ribs when he requested decent housing."How can it be that in the country I defend I don't have a house of my own," Davar quoted the pilot as telling Yaacov Aboudi, an Israeli aircraft mechanic who was the first person to speak to him.

He said he tried to flee six weeks ago while training over northern Syria but Syrian aircraft spotted and intercepted him.

Davar quoted Bassem as saying he penetrated Israeli air space flying low and fast, raising questions about why the Israeli air force did not intercept him.

The Israeli press Thursday sharply criticized the apparent failure and called for a reappraisal of Israel's air defenses.

The pilot said he shook off his partner on a training flight. Davar said he told the Arabic-speaking Israeli mechanic he crossed the border at 750 mph at an altitude of about 100 feet.

Israeli military sources said the air force had begun a routine investigation into the decision not to intercept the Syrian plane.

Jubilation among Israeli officials over the intelligence windfall of receiving the sophisticated interceptor plane and being able to debrief a Syrian pilot on his training was tinged with embarrassment at the apparent air defense failure.

"Either we knew this guy was coming, and there's no evidence of that, or it was a monumental screw-up," one defense source said.