TEL AVIV (Oct. 12)
The Israeli air force wants to know how a Syrian air force major managed to evade radar detection and air defenses when he flew his MiG-23 into northern Israel on Wednesday in order to seek political asylum.
Within hours of the incident, a two-man ad hoc committee of inquiry headed by air force Brig. Gen. Herzl Buddinger was appointed by Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, in order to establish the circumstances of the incident.
In fact, concern in defense circles over the undetected breach of Israeli air space seems for the moment to have overshadowed satisfaction that Israel is probably the first Western country to have obtained one of the Soviet Union’s most sophisticated combat aircraft, operational and fully armed.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Wednesday night it was fortunate the MiG was not shot down because Israel now has the opportunity to examine its engine and avionics.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, addressing schoolchildren in Ra’anana on Thursday, stressed that the unexpected acquisition of a front-line enemy aircraft should not be marred by internal debate and worry over how it got here.
While the Israel Defense Force officially played down the speedy inquiry as a “routine investigation,” there are apparently a lot of red faces among IDF brass and personnel.
The defector, 34-year-old Maj. Adel Bassem, landed his MiG-23 assault plane on a small air strip near Megiddo used by a crop-dusting firm.
The airstrip is close to Emek air force base, yet the MiG-23 managed to fly for seven minutes through Israeli air space without being picked up on radar screens or other monitors.
Had it been on a hostile mission, it would have gone unchallenged by Israeli air defenses.
In fact, the air force got its first news of the penetration from a civilian, Ya’acov Aboudi, an employee of the Chimavir crop-dusting company which uses the Megiddo air strip.
‘BEWILDERED AND SCARED’
Aboudi telephoned the air base after he spoke to the newly arrived Syrian flyer, whom he described as “bewildered and scared.”
According to Israel Radio, the air force initially reacted with disbelief.
The defector, by his account, is a 16-year veteran of the Syrian air force who was born in Aleppo, is unmarried and a Sunni Moslem.
He was very nervous, Aboudi told reporters later. “I tried to calm him down, offering him cigarettes, which he chain-smoked, and a cup of coffee.”
The first thing he said, Aboudi related, was “Thank God I’m out of that hell.”
He said the Syrian told him he had planned to defect for personal reasons and began carefully to prepare months ago. He spoke of mistreatment by other officers and fellow airmen after 16 years of active service.
The major said he was on a practice flight over the Syrian-held area of the Golan Heights on Wednesday, accompanied by another MiG-23 flying under his command.
He said he ordered the other pilot to gain altitude and then he headed for Israel at over 1,000 mph, flying very low — less than 30 yards above the terrain — in order to elude radar.
The MiG-23, which is known to NATO as “Flogger,” has been moved to an IDF base. The pilot is under investigation by air force intelligence.
The International Red Cross has informed Israel, meanwhile, that Syria has formally requested it to obtain the return of the pilot and the aircraft.
Damascus claimed the plane made a forced landing in Israel because of mechanical difficulties, though an inspection showed no signs of any malfunction.
The controlled Syrian news media has not mentioned the defection or even that an aircraft was missing.
There has been no confirmation of media reports Wednesday that a second Syrian MiG-23 pilot defected to Egypt.